Yesterday, Phil Mickelson, aged 50 years, 11 months, 7 days, became the oldest person to ever win a major in the history of professional golf. He won the PGA Championship, held this year at The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. That’s incredible. It’s also inspirational. So let’s talk about why.
This win for Phil is incredible for several reasons. First is the general bit of amazement in winning any golf tournament. There were over 150 golfers entered in this year’s PGA Championship, and even among 150 professional golfers, getting anywhere near the podium is a feat. Think about that. One-hundred fifty guys who do nothing except play golf, and you’re the guy that is best at it over the course of those four days? Outrageously difficult and impressive.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a major. There are four majors every year: The Masters, the PGA Championship, the US Open, and The Open Championship, commonly referred to as the British Open in places with world-class dentistry and driving on the correct side of the road. Every pro golfer wants to win majors. That’s the whole fantasy. Sunday at Augusta, or Sunday at Pebble Beach, or Sunday at Kiawah Island, or Sunday at St. Andrew’s. It doesn’t matter. Beating 150 other guys at an event that is literally every golfer’s dream to win is wild. And it’s not like it’s a team sport so you can recover from a bad day by having a teammate carry you. It’s a dog-eat-dog format, and one bad day—hell, three bad holes—can ruin your chances of winning.
And, of course, there’s Phil’s age. Fifty is not really old anymore, right? I mean, healthcare is so advanced and common people know so much more about how to be healthy that 50 isn’t the greybeard age it was once considered. That said, the average age of a person on the PGA Tour is about 35 years old. Average. That means about half of the players are younger than 35. So Phil beat up on a bunch of folks who, on average, were 15 years younger than him.
And, of course, there’s the fact that it was a close round. Throughout the day yesterday Phil was normally only one stroke ahead of whoever was in second place at the time. Defending a one-stroke lead is difficult anyhow, but when it’s Sunday at a major it’s even more difficult because of the pressure of the situation. Phil’s 50 years of existence may have been an advantage yesterday because he’s been around the game long enough to possibly not be as bothered by that pressure as someone who doesn’t have that experience.
Plus, he did this:
All of this is incredible. Phil winning was incredible. It was his sixth major, and he also became one of only four professional golfers to win a tournament in four different decades (the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s, and the 2020s). Just unbelievably cool and impressive that Phil walked away with the win.
But Lefty’s win was also an inspiration. Not for the Disney-esque, overcoming adversity through character development way, though. More for the Phil has continued to evolve as a golfer and a human way. And also the still crushing it at 50 way. And in the golf-is-a-lifetime-sport-but-no-one-expects-much-from-someone-as-old-as-Phil way.
We’ll take those in reverse order. No expected Phil to be as competitive as he was this weekend. Not necessarily for lack of skill, because I believe most golfers know what an excellent ball striker Phil Mickelson is. More like respect without fear. Everyone respects Lefty’s game, but I don’t get the impression many people are scared of him the way they were ten years ago or the way the way everyone was scared of Tiger for about 15 straight years. And being underestimated can be a huge advantage in something as competitive as sports. Watching Phil Mickelson allow everyone to offer him reverence without actually being afraid of his game while he provided them many reasons to be afraid of his game was fun. Not everyone gets an opportunity to surprise everyone like that in life, but Phil took full advantage.
Then there’s the age thing being inspirational again. I hope I’m as good at anything at 50 as Phil is at golf at 50. I remember in law school we were told that because of the nature of the law, most lawyers have a sweet spot where for about five or ten years in your thirties and early forties, you’re the best, most knowledgeable about the law as you’ll ever be. Before that it’s handling a steep learning curve, and after that it’s just trying to keep up as the law changes. Obviously in sports there’s a physical peak, which Phil surely reached long ago, but there’s also a mental peak, and I would imagine that Phil has managed to extend that peak into a plateau or mesa because it seems to have been lasting for quite some time now. I know golf is one of those “lifetime” activities—my grandparents are each in their 80s and still play so regularly as to create envy in their grandson. But to actually be good for a lifetime? That’s difficult to do.
And finally, there’s Phil’s career evolution. From the baggy-clothed, WASPish appearance of 1990s Phil Mickelson to the consummate runner-up to Tiger Phil Mickelson of the 2000s to the accused-of-profiting-from-insider-trading Phil Mickelson of the 2010s to the CBD-taking, Twitter using, PGA Championship winning Phil Mickelson of the 2020s, Phil has undergone many physical and mental changes.
For instance, Bleacher Report once named Phil Mickelson one of the ten most arrogant golfers of all time. The report indicated he was referred to as “an arrogant phony” and referenced a GQ article from 2006 in which Phil was listed as one of the ten most hated athletes, alongside world-class dickheads like AJ Pierzynski and Barry Bonds. Can you believe that? Apparently another PGA golfer said Phil annoyed other pros and “had no friends” within the PGA. And frankly, I can kind of see it. Early-2000s Phil was frustrated (he didn’t win his first major until 2004,) but then rapidly successful (but he did win majors in 2004 (Masters), 2005 (PGA Championship), and 2006 (Masters)). And, look, sometimes to be that competitive you have to be a bit of an ass. Look at Tiger. Look at Michel Jordan. Look at Kevin Durant.
But Phil has undergone something of a transformation in that regard. In recent years, Phil Mickelson has become a more laid-back guy. He tweets funny things, he’s been caught on camera taking CBD oil during a round at the Masters (pictured, left), he’s done that weird but awesome celebrity golf thing where he and Tom Brady took on Tiger and Peyton Manning…he just seems to take everything a little less seriously, and that’s good for him and everyone. He’s being more interactive with fans, and he’s just generally becoming a much more likeable guy. His Twitter, on which he sometimes makes lighthearted fun of other pro golfers, is a must-follow. And I know this is more of an intangible thing, but if you just watch him play, he looks like he’s having more fun now than he did 20, 15, 10, and even 5 years ago. And when people have the rare combination of being skilled while also having fun, it is generally entertaining to witness.
I was trying to articulate that point even and ended up finding words better than I could think of, so here is an inside look at Phil’s character evolution from a 2019 Golf Channel article:
“Mickelson has been something of a revelation in recent months, turning over a new leaf that few thought he had in him even after standing at the forefront of the sport for more than two decades. His Twitter account has taken social media by storm, featuring video chats with other players and advice on how to build the best calves in equal measure. It’s a light-hearted window into the dry humor and savage one-liners that have previously been reserved for Tour locker rooms.”
So that’s what’s so inspirational. It’s never too late to improve. Phil Mickelson didn’t need to improve his golf game very much. Sure, any athlete will likely aspire to improve forever, but unlike high-impact sports like basketball and football, golf is a sport that can be played, and played well, long after a player’s physical peak. This weekend proves nothing if not that. But for Phil Mickelson work on being a better person, too? That’s what is truly the inspiration.
Our ability for self-reflection and self-improvement is one of the most important traits that separates human being from other living things. By being introspective, reflecting on what is seen, and using that information to find resources to help you improve, you’re taking advantage of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution that really is what makes humans human. So bravo, Phil, for everything. For being the oldest major winner ever, for being hilarious, for becoming a better man with age, and for showing us that you can still have fun while being one of the best in the world at what you do. Bravo, and thank you! But also, probably don’t try a second career as a dancer.