Nearing 50, Phil Mickelson can’t be written off just yet

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 09: Phil Mickelson of the United States reacts during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 09, 2020 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 09: Phil Mickelson of the United States reacts during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 09, 2020 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Phil Mickelson, who turns 50 in June, has his first top-10 on the PGA Tour in a year at Pebble Beach and showed he’s not done chasing trophies.

Phil Mickelson spent most of the 2019 PGA Tour season as a fading star, a man riding into the sunset of his Hall of Fame career. The fans still loved him, hollering about his proclivity to hit bombs, his Twitter savvy, and his muscular calves. But Mickelson’s days as a consistent winner on tour seemed well beyond him.

In Feb. 2019, Mickelson won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for a record-tying fifth time, then endured the worst stretch of golf in his career. He went the remainder of the 2019 season without a top-10 finish, his best showing coming at the familiar confines of Augusta National where he came in 18th in the Masters. He missed the cut eight times in 20 events, his most since he was still an up-and-comer in 1995. Mickelson had five career PGA Tour victories at that time; he now has 44, his place in the pantheon of the sport’s best players firmly secured.

Mickelson, though, showed on Sunday that his professional obituary may have been written much too soon as he nearly added No. 45 to his win column. Coming off a third-place finish in Saudi Arabia a week before, Mickelson went into the final round at Pebble Beach a shot behind Nick Taylor, a Canadian pro whose lone victory on tour came nearly six years earlier. And while Mickelson came up short on this day, finishing five shots behind Taylor and one back of Kevin Streelman for second, it was still a week of positives for a player soon to be on the wrong side of 50.

His usual magic around the greens was still there. In the third round alone, he holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie at the 13th and again from just off the green on the par-five 14th. At Pebble Beach’s iconic short par-three seventh hole, Mickelson found a plugged lie in the bunker behind the green and hit what he later called one of the best sand saves of his career, landing the ball in the rough and watching it roll to within two feet for an easy par.

Mickelson had played more than 900 rounds in the ShotLink era and his strokes gained: around-the-green on Saturday was the third-best of his career.

Pebble Beach is a special place for Mickelson. His grandfather was one of the original caddies at the course, and Mickelson still carries around a coin his grandfather gave him to mark his ball.

He’s now been inside the top-three four of the last five years here and extended his streak of having at least one top-10 finish to 30 consecutive seasons, third-most all-time behind Sam Snead and Raymond Floyd. But it was his first top-10 since winning here a year ago, and Mickelson admits it was nice to be near the top of the leaderboard once again.

“I had a lot of fun today having a chance to be in contention and having a chance to win,” he said following his round. “It was fun to get back in it, and these past couple of weeks have really given me motivation and momentum to continue doing what I’m doing.

“I fought hard. I loved having a chance to be in it again. It’s so fun being in the last group and I’m hoping to continue to build on this.”

The past year has been marked by struggles for the 49-year-old. He had fallen all the way to 72nd in the World Golf Rankings, the first time he’s been outside the top-50 since 1993. His performance on the greens, in particular, went through a precipitous decline, from 13th in strokes gained: putting in 2018 to 139th last year. He came into Pebble Beach 202nd on tour in putting, but ranked 25th out of 68 players to make the cut this week.

Mickelson had fallen so far that he started to get questions about whether he would join the Champions Tour when he turns 50 in June; Mickelson reiterated that he has no interest.

He’s not yet in the field for the U.S. Open and says he won’t accept a special invitation to play at Winged Foot, the same course where he let his best chance to win the one major he lacks slip away in 2006. But with his third-place finish on Sunday, he’s now 55th in the world rankings and would qualify for Winged Foot if he can maintain that ranking through May.

The player who beat him on Sunday had his own major championship status on the line. With his second PGA Tour title, only the seventh Canadian with multiple victories, Taylor is now exempt into the Masters and the PGA Championship.

Taylor seemed an unlikely candidate to hold off Mickelson. His last top-five finish on tour came in 2016 at the Puerto Rico Open. He came into the week with 10 top-10 finishes in 159 career starts; Mickelson has 12 top-10s at Pebble Beach alone. But Taylor gave Mickelson a look at his own short-game magic, holing out from a bunker for eagle at the sixth hole and again for birdie from the rough on the right side of the green at the 15th. That last chip-in removed any hope Mickelson had of coming back and ensured the AT&T Pebble Beach trophy would head to Canada for the first time in the event’s long history.

Mickelson was disappointed to come up short after the tournament but understood what this finish means for his career. After a year spent wondering whether he’ll ever get the chance to contend with the game’s best again, Mickelson is back at the top of his game, hitting bombs and working his magic around the greens. Now he just needs to prove he can stay there, something he failed to do in 2019.

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