Phil Mickelson is not new to golf, but Sunday’s performance at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course revealed a new player that few of us have seen before. He seemingly shed a skin, and reappeared as, no, not a younger person, but ironically, as an older person playing a young person’s game. How did he manage to abandon the old “Lefty”, and become the new sheriff in town?
I am not a golf zealot. I love the game, and occasionally have actually landed a drive on a fairway as opposed to the much more inviting rough edges. I don’t follow golfers, record statistics, recount games or ponder golf equipment. But I do get enjoyment in watching professionals pit their best against the elements: wind, gravity, foliage, water, crowds, blimps, cameras and second doubts.
Watching Mickelson at the PGA Championship this past weekend was like staring up at Nik Wallenda hike across a tightrope 40 stories up in Chicago. Actually, the comparison is not a fair one, in that it was always a certainty that the high-rise circus performer would do it okay. Not so much for the 50-year-old golfer who has for 30 years soared, spun, fallen, struggled and recovered while collecting a den full of trophies. He is a gallery favorite in the PGA, but not necessarily a sure winner.
Still, there he was for four straight days the uncontested leader, the number one performer among a field of 157 competitors. At nearly 51 years, he was also the oldest of the pack, surrounded by 20- and 30-somethings, and having his way. How? What became of our young, adventuresome, risk-taking, wavy-haired, reckless, canny, plum lucky player who smiled and winced his way through golf’s grassy treacherous gauntlet, game after game?
Remember, this is a golfer who is, or certainly was, a pitchman for a psoriatic arthritis medication. We used to watch him smiling, nimbly making sandwiches with previously pained hands. A golfer’s grip is everything you know.
Viewers would have to agree that they were watching a reborn player. Mickelson has shed weight. The boyish plumpness that rolled forever beneath his shirt is gone. The curls that used to blossom from beneath his cap have been replaced with a neatly trimmed bang at the back of his head.
His face is older, more lined, lacking the baby fat that used to dimple as he smiled. His demeanor has shifted into a stoic look that was unchanged over 72 grueling holes. The camera never captured a smile, a frown, or a coy glance over four days that we saw. Dressed head-to-toe in black for much of the event, he appeared formidable. And he wore impenetrable reflective sun glasses that hid any emotion that might reveal his thoughts. He looked more like an ocean-going sea captain in stormy waters than a hiker surrounded by thousands of adoring fans.
I remarked on this to a golfing friend, who said, “He uses meditation”.
That explained the trance-like poses he took before every shot. Some say you need to visualize what the ball is going to do, and then you make it happen. That is a load of bunker. In golf, once you have hit the ball, its path is entirely, literally, out of your hands, and will be whipped around by wind, vacuums, heat, cold, grass blades, spectator feet and discarded ice cubes.
Never mind that the Ocean Course is a sandy, windswept collection of swamps, twisting ponds and encroaching bunkers that seem to surround every green and fairway like marauding predators.
In Mickelson’s case, he took that pause to settle his nerves. What was his mantra during those moments? The Lord’s Prayer, The 23rd Psalm, Latin declensions, his locker combination? We won’t know, but physiologically, the long pauses released his mind from the last shot, and possibly washed away his thoughts about the one coming up. More likely, he dreamt for a moment about the best shot he had ever made in similar circumstances. The act of mentally drifting away from the current threat makes it easier to handle it. Without thinking about it, Phil was channeling his own natural “force”.
This conquest was a joy to watch, if even the victor seemed oblivious to it. He strode from pin to tee alone, head down, occasionally giving a thumbs up to the gallery.
On the last hole, as he approached the 18th green, he was swarmed by an uncontrollable gallery, knocking him off balance at one point. If golf ever had a mosh pit, this was it. And after he calmly two-putted his win, he held up his club in a salute, hugged his brother Tim who caddied, and walked alone up to the judge’s station to finish the paperwork.
They say that golf is a lonely game for competitors. Indeed, Mickelson was not tackled or hugged by his wife or children as he finished. They remained at home, and he spoke to them by phone only after filing his card.
Now, a day later, can he lower the shields, and rejoin the other world, that one off the course?