How and why Phil Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship

Planet Sport looks inside the triumph at Kiawah Island to unearth the key factors that turned a dream into reality.

The rapturous scenes that welcomed Phil Mickelson's walk up the final hole of the PGA Championship he had all-but-won were a celebration of golf's capacity to straddle the generations.

World class sport is supposed to be dominated by youngsters and golf's continuing obsession with strength, athleticism, and big-hitting had appeared to drag the sport into the mainstream.

Indeed, eight of the previous 10 PGA Championship winners were twentysomethings and none were older than 40.

Old men were not supposed to do these things; old men just shouldn't be winning Major Championships, no-one in their 50s had ever done it.

They shouldn't be surrounded by thousands of drunk youngsters ignoring social distancing either, for that matter.

Little wonder Mickelson said: "It was a little bit unnerving, but exceptionally awesome, too."

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Old men tend to say that about a first bungee jump or a forced return to the dating scene, that Mickelson was referring to something as ludicrous as beating the best golfers in the world rather puts into perspective just what a ridiculous achievement this was.

It's not even as if he accomplished his feat on a diddy track that cramped the style of the whippersnappers - he did it on the longest Major Championship course in history.

Let's take a closer look at the all-important factors behind his sensational triumph and then take a look forward to next month's US Open.

Defying conventional wisdom

There was, in this win, a curious echo of his 2013 successes on the linksland of Scotland.

That year, playing in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, he opted to play a flop shot when the commentary team thought a classic links chip-and-run option made more sense.

As is popular in golf, such a decision was discussed in terms of moral depravity rather than the simple business of playing glorified bat and ball, and, although he executed the short brilliantly, viewers were left in no doubt that in the long run his refusal to play by the rules would harm him in the long run.

In actual fact, he won that week and lifted the Claret Jug a week later.

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Early in the first round on Thursday, Mickelson's playing partner Padraig Harrington drilled a low approach into the wind and right to the heart of a green. The eventual champion then played his own effort high in the air and it pulled up short of the putting surface.

Once again we were reminded that he wasn't playing the game the right way, once again it was if he was somehow degenerate rather than someone who just clobbers a ball in a different way.

It's indisputably his way and the mainstream are often flummoxed by it. There's also not much doubt that Mickelson has often shot himself in the foot with his wilful ways, but it's also undeniable that you've got to think big, and think distinctly, to pull off what others haven't.

Believing in, and then achieving, the impossible

"I just didn't see why it couldn't be done," he said of winning in his 50s. "It just took a little bit more effort. I've believed for some time now, without success, that I could play at my best and compete in Major Championships still, but until this week, I haven't proven it to myself or anyone else."

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At Augusta National he explained that the key going forward was not physical, but mental. He had worked ferociously hard to be able to hit the ball a long way (and he hit the longest drive of the week on the 16th hole in the final round) - he now needed to find a way to hone his mental game.

Brain training and meditation came up with the answers. "It gave me the ability to quieten my mind and get rid of all the exterior noise," he explained after the win.

"I don't want to get all spiritual, but that's kind of been the biggest thing for me. I've not let myself think about the result until now that it's over."

"I've stayed more in the present. I really just tried to stay calm."

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Work ethic and motivation

"I worked harder," Mickelson said. "Physically, I needed 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. That's been the biggest challenge of late.

"My desire to play is the same. I've always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete, I love playing the game at the highest level. That's what drives me."


Remember the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month? Mickelson led by two after 18 holes, but rounds of 75-76-76 followed in a T69th finish.

He might have won 55 times around the world, but he'd been nowhere near the top of a leaderboard since last summer at this level, and even golfers as good as Mickelson need recces from basecamp, to test the thinner air, before they attempt to reach the summit.

He was resilient in the final round at Kiawah, bouncing back from mistakes, refusing to wilt.

Don't discount the Quail Hollow experience as: a) a reminder that he could hit the top, and b) a primer on how to stay there next time.

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Brothers in arms

Mickelson had a strong bond with past caddie Bones McKay and his brother Tim is also proving to be a superb bag man.

"I'll tell you a perfect example," he said. "This is an intangible that makes him get the best out of me. I'd been striking the ball awesome the first three days, had a wonderful warm up session, was ready to go, and yet I made uncommitted swings for the first six holes.

"He pulled me aside and said, 'If you're going to win this thing, you're going to have to make committed golf swings.' It hit me in the head: I can't control the outcome, but I have to swing committed.

"Immediately I made a good drive on seven, gave me a chance to get down by the green and make birdie. From there on, I hit a lot of really good shots because I was committed to each one."

Deemed a has-been

Might there also be a secret motivating factor in this win?

There's been no discussion of it by the man himself, possibly just because no-one has asked the question, but in all the recent discussion of the Saudi-backed Super League and Mickelson's potential involvements, lots of people said winning at the highest level was beyond him so he was ready to cash in.

He won't have missed those suggestions and consciously, or perhaps sub-consciously, it's entirely possible that it helped narrow the eyes, focus the desire, and drove him to prove otherwise.

Few things inspire world-class sportsmen and women like a slight, perceived or otherwise.

What's next?

You thought this week was a Mickelson show? Wait till the next Major.

It's the US Open: the one he hasn't yet one, the missing piece of the Grand Slam puzzle, and it's on his patch - in his home city of San Diego at one of his favourite courses, Torrey Pines.

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The clamour and frenzy will be extraordinary, but he insists: "I do believe that if I stay sharp mentally I can play well at Torrey Pines.

"This could very well be my last really good opportunity to win a US Open. I'm going to put everything I have into it."

He's a two-time course winner and best price 50/1 with Paddy Power to win again next month.

READ MORE: 10 things to know about 300/1 Phil Mickelson's record-breaking PGA Championship win

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