In a way, it shouldn’t be all that special.
Because Phil Mickelson’s been making something out of nothing since the moment he became a recognized commodity—typically with nothing beyond a lofted wedge in his hand—it should come as no surprise that he’s discovered a similar capacity to prolong his career beyond its forecast relevance.
Nonetheless, when he puts on a display like the one on Sunday at Valhalla, where he finished just a stroke behind 25-year-old phenom Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship, astonishment is involuntary.
For any number of reasons.
Not the least of which are age and appearance.
Though he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer with a resume of five major titles and 42 PGA Tour wins that compares to anyone not named Jack or Tiger, it’s getting harder to fathom that a man who first won when McIlroy was 20 months old—and who looks like Phil does—should still compete on similar planes.
Even at a smallish 5’9”, the taut Irishman is the latest version of the athletically built, driver-wielding prototype that’s become the norm since a 21-year-old Woods exploded at the 1997 Masters. Meanwhile, Mickelson’s 6’3” silhouette has long leaned more Michelin than muscular, which, while it may earn him extra love from the everyman, does nothing to promote the premise he’s an equal.
Until, that is, he is.
While Sunday’s sunrise arrived with a chance that McIlroy could run the table as he’d done on the way to three prior majors—by a combined 18 strokes—it became evident once rain-stalled play began that the 44-year-old in the second-to-last pairing was in no hurry to simply attend another coronation.
Birdies at both the first and second quickly pared Mickelson’s initial three-shot deficit to one. And when McIlroy pushed a few inches right on a six-foot par putt at No. 3, the sleek hare and the rotund turtle were somehow in a flat-footed tie. The margin then went to one in the other direction after an erratic McIlroy’s second bogey on No. 6, and grew to two a few minutes with a Mickelson birdie on the ninth.
At that moment, even the idea that a 44-year-old could beat back the masses seemed possible.
Until, on Sunday at least, it wasn’t.
Because McIlroy’s 32 over the final nine was ultimately three shots better than Mickelson’s 35 over the same stretch, the knee-jerk reaction might be that it was simply the last instinctive gasp of a player whose window for genuine contention has slammed shut.
And while that may carry some truth when it comes to the myriad mundane Sundays from spring through fall, the major reality seems otherwise.
It was Mickelson’s ninth runner-up in a major alongside his five wins, and ensured a seventh straight season in which he’s managed at least one top-five at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA—including 2013, in which his result at the British yielded a Claret Jug.
Hardly the stat line of an old-timer content with status as a relic.
McIlroy’s top-five streak, incidentally, now stands at six years.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” a still-flushed Mickelson said at the post-tournament press conference, “but it was a fun day for me to get into the mix.”
The fleshy body may have been screaming uncle, but the spirit clearly hasn’t gotten the message.