KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — “The Phil Mickelson Experience’’ is one of the great thrill rides in sports.
Like many of the best roller coasters in the world, it’s a ride-at-your-own-risk deal. Whiplash is always a possibility, and it can be scary not only for children, but also for adults.
Through 36 holes, Mickelson, who’s 26 days away from his 51st birthday, has put a scare into the competition at the 103rd PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course after rounds of 70 and 69 have him at 5-under and tied for the lead with Louis Oosthuizen.
Should Mickelson find himself completing the deal this weekend and hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy for the second in his career (16 years removed from his 2005 victory sat Baltusrol), he’d become the oldest major championship winner in the history of the sport.
“I expect him to contend and I wouldn’t put it past him being there at the end of the week,’’ said Padraig Harrington, one of Mickelson’s two playing partners the past two days. “I think he has the bit between his teeth. He believes he can do it.’’
Australian Cam Smith expressed no surprise at the position Mickelson is in, regardless of how old he is or the fact that his last top-10 finish in a major came at the 2016 British Open.
“He knows that he can win,’’ Smith said. “He walks around like he can still win, and he talks the talk. It’ll be tough to catch him, I think.’’
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Even for the most ardent of golf junkies, a golf tournament can sometimes become a bit sleepy. The elixir for that — the shot of tequila or espresso depending on your mood and taste — always is Mickelson, if he happens to be in the field.
Mickelson’s combined score on his second nine holes the past two days is 9-under.
On Thursday, he did what no one else in the 156-player field has done this week: He conquered the back nine, a series of stout holes playing into the wind that have been ruining rounds faster than coastal storms flood beach houses. He shot a 4-under 32 when most of the field was shooting 4-over on that stretch.
On Friday, playing the front nine as his second nine, Mickelson devoured that side, shooting a 5-under 31 after shooting 38 on the back nine.
The most remarkable element to the proceedings Friday was how controlled Mickelson’s game was off the tee. Part of the thrill when watching Mickelson is how erratic he can be off the tee. To loosely borrow from Tom Hanks, every tee shot is like a box of chocolates, because you never know what you’re going to get.
On Friday, he hit 11 of 14 fairways after hitting just six of 14 the day before.
“There were no foul balls,’’ said Jason Day, Mickelson’s other playing partner the first two rounds. “Usually with Phil … you kind of get some off-the-map drives that make it very interesting. [But] he’s kept it very, very straight over the last two days. “When he was out of position, he just kind of — you know Phil — he got up-and-down.’’
Day and Harrington got a full dose of “The Phil Mickelson Experience’’ the past two days.
Mickelson has been on record that, even at age 50, he knows he has the physical tools to compete with the best young players. It’s his focus that has wandered — sometimes from round to round, and sometimes within the same round — that has prevented him from winning more. Of late, he has gone to great lengths of late to dial in his focus.
“I’m just making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus,’’ Mickelson said. “I might try to play 36, 45 holes in a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn’t feel like it’s that much. I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating, but I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.
“Physically I feel like I’m able to perform and hit the shots that I’ve hit throughout my career, and I feel like I can do it every bit as well as I have, but I’ve got to have that clear picture and focus.’’
The picture has been clear and the focus crisp these past two days. What’s in store for the next two?
That unknown is precisely what “The Phil Mickelson Experience’’ is all about.