KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson will be in the final group at the PGA Championship on Saturday, a surprise given his recent form and struggles with numerous aspects of his game.
Jason Day had an easy explanation.
“There were no foul balls,” said Day, who played with Mickelson during the first two rounds at the Ocean Course. “Usually with Phil, you can get some pretty wide ones, and he kept it straight out in front of him.”
Much like Thursday, Mickelson started slowly Friday, then rallied over the closing nine holes, shooting a 3-under-par 69 that included a front-nine (his final) 31 to complete 36 holes at 139, 5 under par. He led in the clubhouse for hours before being passed by Louis Oosthuizen, who dropped into a tie with Mickelson after making his only bogey of the day at the 18th.
Two-time PGA champion Brooks Koepka, recovering from a knee injury, finished a shot back, while Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama is tied with Branden Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout in a tie for fifth, two strokes behind the leaders.
Mickelson, 50, was bidding to become the first player 50 or older to hold a 36-hole lead at a major championship since Fred Couples, who was 50 when he led the 2012 Masters. Sam Snead was the last to do it at the PGA when he was 54 in 1966. The oldest player to win a major championship was Julius Boros, who was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship.
“I’m having a lot of fun, and to play well, to know I’m playing well heading into the weekend, to be in contention, to have a good opportunity, I’m having a blast,” Mickelson said. “I’m excited for the weekend. This has been a lot of fun.”
Mickelson hit 11 of 14 fairways, a huge factor in his success on a course pounded by wind and causing all kinds of consternation. With a 7:49 a.m. ET tee time off of No. 10, however, Mickelson and his group that included Day and Padraig Harrington were able to get to the treacherous final four holes of the final 9 completed before the wind got worse.
Still, Mickelson bogeyed the 17th and 18th to shoot 38 on the back and drop to even par for the tournament. But he turned it around on the first nine with birdies at the second, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth holes, the final one coming after rolling in a 22-foot putt.
Mickelson hit 12 of 18 greens and has needed just 27 putts during each of the first two rounds.
“I think he believes he can do it in these conditions, just like myself,” said Padraig Harrington, the three-time major winner who captured the PGA in 2008 and is at even par, five shots back of Mickelson. “I think like myself, Phil would find it easier to compete on this style of golf course in these conditions in a major tournament all the time.
“You can be patient in these courses, and obviously you’ve got to make a few birdies, but it suits somebody who is a player, somebody who is thinking.”
And that has been an issue for Mickelson of late. He’s bemoaned several times his in inability to focus properly. The five-time major champion who won the PGA in 2005 was the first-round leader two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship with a 64. Then he shot scores of 75, 76 and 76 to fall back to 69th.
In conditions that would seemingly test that focus, Mickelson has prospered, despite slow starts. On Thursday, Mickelson bogeyed four of his first six holes; Friday, he had three bogeys over his first nine. He bounced back with scores of 32 on the back nine Thursday and 31 on the front side Friday.
“I’m working on it,” Mickelson said. “I’m just making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus. I might try to play 36, 45 holes in a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn’t feel like it’s that much. I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating, but I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.
“Physically I feel like I’m able to perform and hit the shots that I’ve hit throughout my career, and I feel like I can do it every bit as well as I have, but I’ve got to have that clear picture and focus. So these first two days have been much better.”
Mickelson, ranked 115th in the world, does not have a top-10 finish in 2021, with his best a tie for 21st at the Masters. The last time he contended was when he tied for second in August at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
The last of his 44 PGA Tour victories came at the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Mickelson has not had a top-10 finish at a major championship since he finished second to Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open.