Phil Mickelson is on the verge of history, but he’d better not look at who’s behind him and chasing
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Phil Mickelson has been on a nice run for three days at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, good enough to lead the 103rd PGA Championship. He stands at 7-under 209 – he reached 10 under at one point in his third round – and is 18 holes from winning his sixth major championship, his first in nearly eight years.
Mickelson has crossed the threshold of turning 50, and has talked openly about needing to improve his focus to better compete. He meditates. He’ll play 36 holes, and sometimes 45, when he is home in California, challenging himself to stay present in every shot. Just as he has worked hard to be fit, he has worked hard at the mental side, too, treating his brain as a muscle.
That’s all good. On Sunday, he’d be well-served not to look to see who is chasing him.
Right there is Brooks Koepka, a man who, a couple of weeks past his 31st birthday, has figured out the modern majors better than any of his peers. Koepka has won two PGA Championships (2018, 2019) and two U.S. Opens (2017, 2018) and lives for the big moment. Thrives on it, in fact. At 6-under 210, Koepka stands just a shot behind Mickelson, and is bolstered by the confidence he has collected four of these major trophies since Mickelson stopped winning his.
Koepka won’t tell you that he is excited to be there with a shot on Sunday. Instead he gives a shrug, because this is where he expects to be at all the biggest events. Cocky? Somewhat. But he has the game and the record to back up the talk.
“It just feels good, feels normal. It’s what you’re supposed to do, what you practice for,” Koepka said of being one shot out. “I’m right where I want to be, and we’ll see how tomorrow goes. Just be within three of the lead going into the back nine, and you’ve got a chance.”
He has yet to put together a complete round this week, and said 70 was the highest score he could have shot on a Saturday at Kiawah that allowed for good scoring. His ballstriking has been stout; he ranks first in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green, and hit 14 of 18 greens on Saturday. But his putting has lacked for quality. Thirty-one putts were needed on Saturday, which won’t be acceptable if he wants to win a third PGA title on Sunday.
Another man with major-winning experience, Louis Oosthuizen, the sweet-swinging South African, is right there, too. Oosthuizen captured the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews’ Old Course, and also has the distinction of being a runner-up in all four of the majors. On Saturday, his usually reliable ballstriking let him down and he needed to scramble just to shoot 72. But he has been driving the ball well of late, and that can be a huge asset on Sunday as he chases from two shots behind.
“I think anyone within four or five shots is still in for a good shot,” said Oosthuizen, who concedes he will have to hit the ball better on Sunday to have a chance. “Middle of the round, I hit a few good shots, and the good thing is I know what I’m doing wrong. I just need to go and fix it. It’s tough to fix it on the golf course, especially with lots of trouble all over the place.”
Sunday he gets a new start. So does Koepka. Phil Mickelson is 18 holes from history. But there are seasoned major players behind him that will make him work for it.