Phil Mickelson can play a question in as many ways as he can play a 75-yard shot to a back- left hole—provided the architect and the course set-up people have left him with choices. That's one of the things that makes him such a pleasure to watch. That's why a very fine golfer such as Henrik Stenson is at one level, and Mickelson at another. Just watch what he does this week at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, a Garden State course designed by a genius (A.W. Tillinghast), curated expertly by a Jersey boy (Rees Jones) and set up for championship play by a relentlessly sane PGA of America official (Kerry Hague).
Any major in metropolitan New York means microphones in Mickelson's face. For one thing, he won the last PGA Championship at Baltusrol, in 2005. At Winged Foot the following summer, he threw away the U.S. Open, then famously uttered, "I am such at idiot." And in his last start—at the British Open at Troon—he shot 17 under par but finished second to Stenson by three. Nobody has ever posted a lower cumulative score at a major, and in relation to par, Stenson matched the mark set by Jason Day at last year's PGA at Whistling Straits.
Stenson and Mickelson both played beautifully. Truly, it was magnificent. When Jordan Spieth shot 270—18 under—to win the Masters last year, tying Tiger Woods's scoring record, everybody said the same thing: He played beautifully. Nobody said that when Hale Irwin won the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot with 287, seven over par. Even if the USGA had changed par that week to 75, and Irwin's winning score had a different name (13 under) nobody would have called his play beautiful. Everybody knew what it was: survival golf.
At Baltusrol the winning score could be 10 under par. Eight or more players could break par for the four days. That's because with the intense heat and humidity that has settled over greater New York, the course, greens and fairways both, will play soft, and green speeds cannot be, say, Oakmont crazy-fast. Besides, the PGA of America doesn't like to beat up the competitors in its national championship. When Mickelson won in 2005, he shot 276, four under, playing through a variety of conditions.
Whatever Mickelson tells you the winning score will be will most likely be correct. That's because he's half-golfer, half-scientist. He will come up with his number after consulting with various meteorological sources, doing a deep mood analysis of the usual and leading suspects and entering all manner of historic data in a new MIT-designed program underwritten by KPMG and ExxonMobil. Generally speaking, he likes the way Hague sets up courses for the PGA. Most of the players do. Don't get him started on the USGA. Or do.
On Sunday night at Troon, Mickelson was asked to explain the difference between how the R&A sets up courses for the British Open and how the USGA does so for the U.S. Open. This is what he said:
"I think that the R&A sets the golf course up to be as fair as possible and to try to kind of identify who the best player is regardless of what the score is given the conditions and so forth. Sometimes it's 20 under. Sometimes people don't want that many under par. But the fact is if somebody plays some incredible golf, that's what it should do. You shouldn't have to mess with the course too much to try to control the score.
"The USGA has it in their mind that the score needs to be par, so no matter what lines they have to cross to get there, that's got to be the standard, and it kind of disregards and doesn't take into account the difference in talent level and abilities that the players of today now have."
Asked which approach he likes better, Mickelson said, "I prefer this one"—meaning the R&A's. "I think that it's much more fair. I think we all enjoy it. But I'm also biased because I've won this one and I haven't won the other one, so I've got that working against me."
Now comes the PGA Championship, and another chance for Mickelson to get his sixth major, for Stenson to get his second, for Sergio Garcia to get his first, for Dustin Johnson to continue his Summer of Redemption and lock up Player of the Year honors, for Spieth to get people off his back.
It's not the Masters. It can't be the Masters and doesn't try to be. For good and for bad, it's not the U.S. Open and it's not the British Open. Rather, it is a grand old title with a great history and a big ol' trophy waiting in the shadows for the winner, plus valuable cash prizes. Enjoy it for what it is: a traditional U.S. golf championship, played on a course with deep rough and narrow fairways and fast greens. But not crazy deep, not bizarrely narrow, not hideously fast. This week you'll see the players play, and the winner will be, if past performance is any kind of measure, somebody who was won before, somebody who knows how to play a hard course well, someone worthy of having his name etched on the Wanamaker Trophy alongside these names: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen. And Phil Mickelson. Yes, Lefty, his own self.