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How Phil Mickelson’s improbable PGA Championship victory provided a lesson for the ages — and the aging

Veteran PGA Tour star cut down on sugar, soda, lost weight and worked hard. That’s how you win a major at 50

Phil Mickelson holds the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C.
Phil Mickelson holds the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip, Associated Press

Phil Mickelson’s victory at the PGA Championship right before turning 51 signaled to the aging everywhere that there is hope.

It came just as the world is beginning to open up after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, masks and a lid on sports fanship in person.

Phil’s victory is symbolic in so many ways. Just like when aging Tom Brady helped Tampa Bay win a Super Bowl.

Mickelson's secret? He said it boiled down to work.

“I work harder physically to be able to practice as long as I wanted to and I’ve had to work a lot harder to be able to maintain focus throughout a round. If I work a little harder, spend a little more time in the gym, eat well, practice hard, there’s no reason why I can’t put it all out there for 18 holes,” he told the Golf Channel.

Mickelson became the oldest golfer to ever win one of golf’s four majors.

It is so hard to win a major (U.S. Open, Masters, British Open and PGA) that in all his competitive, hall of fame career, Mickelson had only won five before his work Sunday in South Carolina.

Phil Mickelson wades through fans on the 18th fairway during the final round at the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C.
Matt York, Associated Press

Mickelson admitted to Golf Channel writer Luke Kerr-Dineen before the 2020 U.S. Open he’d become soft around the middle, careless with what he ate.

“I wasn’t educated. I either wasn’t aware or didn’t want to know the things I was putting in my body, whether it was diet soda and how toxic that is, or whether it was the amount of sugar and how much inflammation it causes, or whether it was the quantity; all of those things, I just kind of shut my eyes to.”

At Sunday’s post-tournament presser, Mickelson shared his elation.

“This is just an incredible feeling because I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying it wasn’t. I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh, is it worth it in the end, and I’m so appreciative to be holding this Wanamaker Trophy.”

Those of us headed for senior life, those who find themselves hip and knee deep in it already, as the mop on top begins to thin and gray, joints find company in aches and pains, well, we see this as hope.

At the least, Phil’s win provided many with inspiration.

As CBS Sports’ Kyle Porter put it, “After a year of ducking public appearances and holing up in our homes and vowing to kill a virus that rolled uninvited into the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of people, we have a new appreciation for those around us. That’s what came to mind as Lefty walked toward golf history.”

Tiger Woods, second only to Jack Nicklaus in the number of major trophies won, called Mickelson’s PGA Championship win at 50 “truly inspirational” and even though rivals most of their careers, Woods urged Mickelson to keep it rolling.

Back in January, Mickelson told reporters he would “reevaluate things” if he didn’t get off to a solid start this golf season. Part of that would be playing more tournaments on the Champions Tour, where the competition is lighter, the players are older, the courses are set up easier with shorter holes, and there are fewer fairways with tall, thick rough.

In 2020, Phil hosted the American Express at La Quinta and missed the cut by six strokes. He missed 8 of 18 cuts on the PGA Tour and posted just three top-10 finishes.

He was not competitive in three of the majors staged during the COVID-19 season of 2020. There was not a British Open. In his final seven PGA Tour events of 2020 he didn’t finish better than tied for 44th and his last event was a tie for 55th at the Masters this past fall.

In the world of golf, Mickelson spent last year in a downward spin. He did win twice in the only two Champions Tour events he played in 2020. But by competitive standards, Mickelson was widely viewed as a great player whose time had passed him by.

A piece by PGA writer Cameron Morfit detailed how Mickelson had struggled after shooting a second-round 75 at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“At 50, Mickelson has struggled with mental lapses despite meditation, eye exercises and dietary changes,” wrote Morfit.

All of which is why it was so refreshing to see Mickelson take on the world’s very best this past week, from Europe, Australia, South Africa, Japan and the golden flat-bellied young men in their prime who reign atop the PGA Tour — and win.

You name them, they were all there. Mickelson mowed them down.

Phil Mickelson gives a thumbs up on the 16th green during the final round at the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C.
Matt York, Associated Press

A renewed and rebuilt Phil looked fit, slim, confident. He donned a nice pair of shades and projected a cool-guy look.

It’s one thing to do that and lose or struggle and look the fool, but Mickelson put on a clinic for the world and his peers. It was a shot in the arm for the game and the world at large.

The tremendous skill and acumen he is known for around the greens — getting out of bunkers, accurate high-trajectory lob shots, the control of spin on his wedges, his remarkable putting ability — were all on display last week.

And then there came the scene seen on TV, the mob of fans, gathering in waves, without masks, following Mickelson to his triumphant No. 18 green alongside the beautiful vista of the sand and waters of the white-capped Atlantic.

It was a liberating vision of what coming months can be for all of us — freedom.

We are well into the NBA Playoffs where fans are gathering, finding enjoyment and fun, not only with the event but with each other.

The PGA Championship was all of this.

It was liberty.

It was like our spring toward summer got an injection of something nice, laced with hope.

It was the aged schooling the young on one of golf’s biggest stages.