HARTFORD, Conn. – Travelers Championship officials had plenty of reasons to root hard during the final round of the PGA Championship on Sunday.
Third-leader Phil Mickelson is the only player to win Connecticut’s premier sporting event back-to-back (2001-02) and was trying to surpass another World Golf Hall of Fame member, Fairfield native Julius Boros, as the oldest winner of a major championship.
Brooks Koepka, who trailed Mickelson by a shot in his bid to become the first player to win three PGA titles in four years, is one of the early commitments to the Travelers Championship on June 24-27 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Kevin Streelman, the 2014 Travelers champion who finished a stroke behind No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson last year, began the final round three shots back in fourth place in quest of his first Top-10 finish in a major championship.
Fans were treated to a wild start on the treacherous seaside links designed by famed golf course architect Pete Dye, who renovated Edgewood Golf Club into TPC Connecticut and now River Highlands as the Greater Hartford Jaycees sought a more modernized course to replace Wethersfield Country Club, which had hosted the tournament since it began as the Insurance City Open in 1952.
The major early highlight was Phil The Thrill sinking a 50-foot bunker shot for a birdie 2 on the fifth hole that caused him to raise his right hand with his sand wedge high in the air and punch his left hand as his ball disappeared and the crowd went ballistic. Amazingly, CBS analyst Nick Faldo, winner of six major championships, called the shot that sent shock waves around the course.
“I’d started shaky because I just wasn’t committed to some shots, and that was certainly a momentum changer,” Mickelson said. “I knew I had to get it up-and-down and was fortunate it went in.”
The dramatic shot got Mickelson to 7 under and two ahead of Koepka and Streelman, who was playing in front with Louis Oosthuizen. But an errant drive led to a Mickelson bogey at the sixth hole, where Koepka, who had birdied the first hole and made a triple-bogey 7 at No. 2, hit an approach to 3 feet for a birdie 3 and a tie for the lead.
But a Mickelson birdie and Koepka bogey at the par-5 eighth hole gave the man known as Lefty a two-stroke lead that he never relinquished in recording one of his most emotional victories, the 45th overall in a storied career and sixth major to go with three Masters, one British Open and another PGA Championship.
This was the same Mickelson who hadn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and hadn’t had a Top 10 in a major championship since 2016 while plummeting to 115th in the Official World Golf Rankings. But concentrating on staying focused, moving slowly and enjoying the process with a new diet proved to be a winning formula for one of most popular players in the history of the game who began the week at 300-to-1 to win.
As Mickelson made his way to a par 4 on the 18th hole for a closing 1-over-par 73, a 72-hole total of 6-under 282 and a two-stroke lead over Koepka and Oosthuizen, fans swarmed onto the fairway and followed he and Koepka to the green in a scene reminiscent of the British Open shouting, “Phil, Phil, Phil”.
“That was a little unnerving but exceptionally awesome,” said Mickelson, who won his first PGA Championship in 2005 and second at 50 years, 11 months, seven days. “This is certainly one of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of excitement and fulfillment and accomplishment to do something of this magnitude when very few people thought I could except people who believed in me, my wife Amy, brother Tim, (teacher) Andrew Getson, (agent) Steve Loy.
“It’s an incredible day, and I’ve not let myself kind of think about the results until now that it’s over. I’ve tried to stay more in the present and at the shot at hand and not jump ahead and race. I’ve tried to shut my mind to a lot of stuff going around. I wasn’t watching TV. I wasn’t getting on my phone. I was just trying to quiet things down because I’ll get my thoughts racing so I really tried to stay calm.
“I believed for a long time that it was possible to play at this level again but yet everything was saying it wasn’t. I wasn’t executing the way I believed I could, and with the help of Amy and the rest of my team, I’ve been able to make progress and have this week. There was a lot of doubt for sure, but I hope others find that inspirational. It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain their skills, but, gosh, it’s worth it in the end, and I’m so appreciative to be holding this Wanamaker Trophy.”
So how did Phil improve physically to get over the hump?
“I just had to work harder 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,” said Mickelson, who wore out his thumbs giving thumbs-up to his adoring fans. “That’s been the biggest challenge of late because my desire to play is the same. I’ve never been driven by exterior things. I’ve always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete.
“I love playing the game. I love having opportunities to play against the best at the highest level. That’s what drives me, and I think that that’s the belief that I could still do it inspired me to work harder. I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little bit more effort.”
Mickelson made the turn with a three-stroke lead at 7 under and promptly made a 12-foot birdie putt at No. 10 to move four ahead Koepka and Oosthuizen, who each bogeyed the hole. Oosthuizen’s 30-footer from the fringe for birdie at No. 12 got him into solo second at 5 under, but he then sliced his third shot into the water and made a double-bogey 6 at the 13th hole, giving Mickelson a five-stroke lead over the South African and Koepka.
But Mickelson hooked his approach shot into the water on the treacherous 13th hole and then managed to two-putt from 60 feet to salvage a bogey. He made another bogey at the par-3 14th when he missed the green and a 5-foot putt, putting him three ahead of Oosthuizen. Oosthuizen two-putted the par-5 16th hole for birdie to get within two, but Mickelson then hit the longest drive of the week on the hole, 366 yards, before his approach rolled over the green. But Mickelson hit another brilliant chip to 18 inches for a tap-in birdie that restored his three-stroke advantage.
Mickelson’s tee shot on the water-lined par-3 17th hole rolled over the green into lengthy grass. He chopped his second shot onto the green to 23 feet and two-putted for bogey. A routine par at the 18th hole clinched a victory for someone who was theoretically in the twilight of his career with two PGA Tour Champions wins in the last year but only two Top-10 finishes in his last 30 PGA Tour starts.
But a transformed physique that increased his swing speed kept him feeling he could still be competitive with the best in the world. He was finally proven correct and received the Wanamaker Trophy on the 18thgreen in front of longtime Connecticut resident Suzy Whaley, the first female to be elected a PGA of America officer and now the organization’s honorary president.
Oosthuizen closed with 73 and Kopeka 74 for 284, two better than two-time champion and European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington (69), Shane Lowry (69), Harry Higgs (70) and Paul Casey (71), who has also committed to the Travelers Championship. Steelman shot 75 for 287 and a tie for eighth that included Justin Rose (67), another early commitment to the Travelers.
Tim Mickelson has caddied for his older brother since Phil split with Jim “Bones” McKay in 2017, just as Johnson’s brother Austin works for him. Tim insisted he saw the improbable coming.
“He’s actually been playing really well the last three or four months, but he hadn’t scored very well,” Tim said. “As much as the fans wanted it, I wanted it more for my brother. I see how hard he works, and not just at tournaments. When he’s home, he’s playing every day, so I see how much he wants it and I want to do anything I can to help him have that.
“I always used to say it’s all about the process. You hope that the results will come when you want them to, but you have to trust that the process will lead you to the promised land.”
Many of Mickelson’s peers offered congratulations as he walked to the scoring tent and later via Twitter. They included Tiger Woods, who is recovering from serious leg injuries and had his own memorable major victories in the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg and the 2019 Masters after several knee and back surgeries.
“Truly inspiration to see Phil do it again at 50 years old. Congrats,” Woods said in a Tweet.
Inspirational indeed.
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Bruce worked as sports writer for The Hartford Courant for 38 years before retiring in 2008. His major beats at the paper were golf, the Hartford Whalers, University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, United States and World Figure Skating Championships and ski columnist. He has covered every PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 1971, along with 30 Masters, 25 U.S. Opens, four PGA Championships, 12 Deutsche Bank Championships, 15 Westchester (N.Y.) Classics and four Ryder Cups. He has won several Golf Writers Association of America writing awards, including a first place for a feature on John Daly, and was elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. He also worked for the Connecticut Whale hockey team for two years when they were renamed by former Hartford Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, who had become the marketing director of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the top affiliate of the New York Rangers.