A day before he was to tee off in the first round of the 2003 PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson turned his attention to a drive down East Avenue rather than a drive down the famed fairways of Oak Hill Country Club. The avid football fan had been told the Buffalo Bills were practicing at nearby St. John Fisher College, and he figured a day at training camp would provide a brief, welcome respite from the enormous pressures he’d be facing the next four days.
Unfortunately, Mickelson’s detour wound up having an undesired effect. His visit called attention to the numerous heartbreaks he and the Bills had endured through the years, providing comedic fodder for the national media that had descended upon suburban Rochester.
“He must have felt right at home,” an Associated Press writer quipped. “They’ve never won a major championship, either.”
“Misery loves company,” wrote another columnist, a cheap-shotted reference to the still raw, painful memories of the Bills four consecutive Super Bowl losses and Mickelson’s winless streak of 41 majors.
I flashed back to that training camp visit and smiled as I watched the ancient golfer make his way through the rowdy, adoring crowd that swallowed up the 18th green at Kiawah Island, S.C., late Sunday afternoon. Mickelson, who turns 51 next month, long ago extricated himself from that “can’t-win-the-big-one” ball and chain attached to his golf legacy by winning the Master’s a year after finishing tied for 23rd at Oak Hill. He would capture two more Masters, a PGA Championship and a British Open, but none of those major victories will ever top the one he scored last weekend near the gusty, sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
This was a performance for the ages — and the aged. This was about so much more than golf. This was about persistence and fortitude and the sage, old advice of Negro League pitcher/philosopher Satchel Paige who reminded us: “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
By reinventing himself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, Mickelson was able to ward off Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen and Father Time to become the oldest major champion in history. Julius Boros had held that distinction for 53 years, after winning the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.
“There’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age,” Mickelson said after his two-stroke victory at the 2021 PGA Championship. “It just takes a little more work.”
And a lot more perseverance.
Timing is everything in golf and life, and the man known as Lefty had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Tiger Woods. Despite his enormous talent, Mickelson never quite became the rival everyone was hoping for, but galleries came to love him nonetheless. Fans loved his aggressive ball-striking style and how he refused to play it close to vest; how he refused, in the golf vernacular, to lay-up. That desire to flirt with danger was appealing — and, occasionally, detrimental. Mickelson’s collapses were epic, especially at U.S. Opens, the only major he hasn’t won; a tournament that’s seen him finish second six times.
Rochesterians got an early glimpse of Mickelson’s intrepid approach during the 1995 Ryder Cup, when he went 3-0-0 in his debut at Oak Hill. At the aforementioned 2003 PGA Championship, he flashed greatness again, firing an open-round 66 before blowing up with a five-over-par score in the second round to plummet out of contention.
Before his 2013 PGA appearance at Oak Hill, expectations soared again because Mickelson was coming off a victory in the British Open. But his game wound up in the rough that Saturday, as he shot an eight-over-par 78, tying his worst round ever in a major. Interestingly, during that tournament, he played a practice round with Koepka, who has won four majors in the past four years and was a favorite of many to overtake Mickelson during Sunday’s final round.
But Lefty prevailed. Conditioning and diet had helped him turn a squishy body into one rock-hard. Mickelson took up meditation, and carried that mindfulness onto the course, occasionally closing his eyes and slowing down his breathing and visualizing his shots before addressing the ball. The result was a new Mickelson that incorporated the best of the old Mickelson.
When he tapped in his putt to complete his victory, he added to an amazing narrative that no longer is dominated by what might have been. He joined Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo as six-time major winners. Only 11 golfers have won more. He became the first player in PGA history to win tournaments 30 years apart — his first of 45 titles coming in 1991 when he was a junior at Arizona State and Koepka was eight months old.
More importantly, he taught us about stretching the limits of what’s possible; about how sometimes it’s quite all right not to act your age.
Funny the difference a decade or two can make. There was Mickelson and the Bills at that training camp 18 years ago, providing cruel, comedic fodder. Now, nobody is laughing at either. Lefty has firmly established himself as one of the greatest golfers of all-time. And the Bills, led by an intrepid, sky’s-the-limit quarterback named Josh Allen, are knocking on the door of a Super Bowl championship.
Misery may indeed love company. But joy does, too.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.