Phil Mickelson rolls back the years but has elite company on USPGA leaderboard
Full leaderboard Third round tee times Padraig Harrington had seen enough. After watching playing partner Phil Mickelson rolling back the years whilst rolling in the putts in the first two rounds of the 103rd US PGA Championship here, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain was ready to call history. “In the position Phil is, I expect him to contend and I wouldn’t put it past him being there on top at the end of the weekend,” Harrington said. “He has the bit between his teeth and believes he can do it in these conditions. You know what? Even second would now be a disappointment for Phil.” Mickelson is 51 next month and if Harrington’s prediction comes to pass, great chunks of golf’s folklore would need rewriting, most notably that he would smash Julius Boros’s record of oldest ever major-winner by more than two years. Lefty would march into next month’s US Open with his career grand slam dream re-invigorated, having made a mockery of the US Golf Association special exemption it felt obliged to issue last week. Box office Phil makes fans dream with unexpected charge Yet more than any of this, it would give hope to written-off veterans everywhere and act as a bugle call for those with ear-trumpets across the globe. The ancient game would never be quite the same again. Of course, these are still early days in this, at times, excruciating marathon and on The Ocean Course – providing one of the most all-round demanding major tests that golf has ever witnessed – it is plainly foolish to project forward even a few holes never mind a few days. Especially when the leaderboard is this congested. On five-under, Mickelson shares the lead with South African Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open Champion, one clear of Brooks Koepka in third with last month’s Masters hero, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama sharing fourth with Oosthuizen’s countrymen, Branden Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout on three-under. In all there are 25 within five shots of the halfway pace and these also include reigning US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau on one-under and the defending US PGA Collin Morikawa on level par, alongside reigning Open champion Shane Lowry. And Britain happens to be promisingly represented in this high-quality logjam. Paul Casey, last year’s runner-up, is on two-under and Martin Laird is on one-under, with Matt Fitzpatrick and Ian Poulter only one further back. Alas, Rory Mcilroy is not in that number and the 2012 Kiawah champion palpably should be. The Northern Irishman bogeyed the last three holes, which is no disgrace when the wind is blowing into the face, but was nevertheless a huge setback after his sterling work to bounce back from that opening 75. The critical factor has been his gross ineptitude on the par fives for which he is three-over, nine worse than Mickelson. You do not require DeChambeau’s intellect to spot the shortfall for McIlroy, a player who has stacked up millions from devouring the kong holes. “That’s been the big thing,” McIlroy said. “If I’d have played those better, I’d have been right up there, but making five bogeys on the par fives is not going to get it done. After a 72, McIlroy is eight in arrears but knows he is capable of making the required inroads on Saturday to launch a challenge for his major triumph in seven years. Except this does not seem any place to be chasing, with danger lurking on every hole for the over bold. Mickelson’s miraculous recovery game allied to his nous could well prove invaluable. As world No 1 Dustin Johnson, was missing the cut, crashing out on six-over after a 76 and as quality ball-strikers such as Sergio Garcia and Tommy Fleetwood were also in the exodus off this barrier island – later to be joined by world Nos 2 and 4, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele – so Mickelson utilised his experience to survive the worst intentions of Pete Dye’s wicked creation. And as the spray came off the Atlantic, Harrington recognised that competitive life is still left in the salty old sea dogs yet. “Phil finds it easier to compete on this style of course in these conditions,” Harrington said, bemoaning his own late collapse that took him to a 73, but by no means out of the frame on level par. “It suits somebody who is a ‘player’, somebody who is thinking. Each day Phil has started badly and has bounced back and played his next nine in five-under. No panic.” Mickelson actually negotiated the inward half in four-under on Thursday, but as that is the more challenging nine, Harrington can be forgiven for boosting its status. Starting on the 10th on Friday, Mickelson was three-over by the time he reached the first tee, but then reeled off a quintet of red numbers, including a sumptuous iron from 195 yards to three feet on the fourth. Yet it was the final two holes that best summed up his defiant efforts. On the par-three eighth, his ball unluckily veered off the green and he audibly complained about feeling rushed after his group had been put on the referee’s clock. No matter, Mickelson performed one of his exquisite par-saving chips and all there was left was to hole a 20-footer for birdie on the ninth, enact one of those short but expressive fist-pumps and the crowds – limited to 10,000 here, but still extremely enthusiastic – were fanatically is his corner once more. “It was fun to finish like that and to have that type of support is special,” he said, trademark grin beaming at its brightest. “I had to be patient, but I was able to make a few birdies.” As Mickelson was talking, he was informed that Grace had double-bogeyed the 17th and that he was the outright leader. “Sir, if you were to tell me that like on Sunday night, I’d really enjoy it, but right now there’s a lot of work to do,” Mickelson said. “I’m just happy to be going into the weekend with an opportunity.” Indeed, the fact he is in the final group seems fantastical enough. Without a single top-20 finish on the PGA Tour in nine months, or a top 10 in the majors in almost five years, Mickelson has fallen to his lowest ranking in more than three decades. There have been two wins on the US Seniors Tour since he turned 50, but that has only made it yet more straightforward to herald the final whistle on a garlanded career. What Phil The Thrill would give to silence that shrill. The name of the game is survival and there is surely no more appropriate layout to prove that it is all about being the last man standing. How tough is the Ocean Course? Well, consider Poulter’s fate. Third here behind McIlroy in 2012, the 45-year-old gallantly advanced to four-under with four birdies and an eagle in his first 11 holes, but then his charge was cruelly arrested with four bogeys down the brutal, wind-against stretch. Yet Poulter was uncharacteristically not all that disheartened. “I got on to the 13th and there was a scoreboard and it was ironic, – ‘Ian Poulter is six-under for the day through 12 holes and is chasing down the course-record 65’,” he said. “I just started laughing to myself. Who in the world would write that with those last five holes to play?” Poulter was correct; a 70 in this severe examination is commendable regardless of how it is compiled. Close enough, if tough enough and astute enough.