SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — If anyone can cheat Father Time it’s Phil the Thrill. But Friday at Baltusrol, Phil must have felt like he was staring into a funhouse mirror. As he struggled to make the cut, he had a firsthand look at two players who resembled younger versions of himself: Lefty at his brilliant best, and his most maddening.
First was Jason Day, the top-ranked player in the world, who made an avalanche of birdie putts in a Mickelson-like charge up the leaderboard. Day’s 65 was good for third place, two shots behind co-leaders Jimmy Walker and Emiliano Grillo.
Then there was Rory McIlroy, who pounded it off the tee but couldn’t find greens, and when he did, failed to make putts. It was everything Mickelson can be at his most maddening: occasional shining moments smashed up against disappointment and heartbreak.
Mickelson’s own frustrations on Friday began with his first swing, when he fanned his tee shot left onto the road, then hit his fourth well past the green and made a triple-bogey 7. He later called it the worst start to a round in the history of the PGA Championship. “I’d have to look that up,” he quipped, his legendary humor still very much intact.
From that opening hole, it was a fight to get back below the cut line, which he eventually did with a birdie on the final hole for an even-par round of 70. Throughout the afternoon, there were signals that while Mickelson could still conjure occasional bouts of magic, perhaps Merlin’s beard had grown too white and his powers too faded.
“I’m having a difficult time right now managing my expectations because I know how well I’m playing and I’m so result-oriented that I’m not playing very relaxed-free golf like I did at the British,” he said.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe the 46-year-old’s on-plane swing can keep him in contention at majors into AARP territory, just as it did two weeks ago at Royal Troon. He has to believe that.
On the 13th hole I ran into Doug Steffen, walking in his final major championship as director of golf at Baltusrol (he’s retiring at the end of the year). Mickelson was the only one in the group to hit the fairway and I asked if Mickelson could attack the pin tucked in the left corner.
“Absolutely,” Doug said. “With that angle? A little right-to-left shot.”
Phil saw the same. He dropped his approach inside 10 feet. As his birdie putt slid by the hole, Steffen shook his head.
“It was left edge all the way.”
In between most holes, Mickelson would take air-swings, trying to find a groove.
Mickelson’s second round—and maybe the state of his game today—can be summed up in the way he and his partners played the par-4 15th. All three players hit driver. Day and McIlroy busted it well past Lefty, who had honors. Mickelson hit a nice approach and had a makeable look at birdie.
Day, who was in the first cut but a good 30 or 40 yards in front of Phil, stuffed his approach inside six feet and drained his birdie, sending Baltusrol briefly on lookout for a 62, a feat Lefty nearly accomplished just two weeks ago at Troon.
Mickelson’s birdie putt went begging.
Standing on the 18th hole at two over, Mickelson must have believed he needed to make birdie to make the cut (as it turns out, par would have been sufficient). He smoked a three-wood down the middle and ripped another one to reach the green in two, a remarkable shot just when he needed it.
The gallery on 18 might as well have been a Sunday crowd as people jammed in to see their adopted hero. In fact, Lefty’s picture hangs on the walls of local mainstay Joe’s Pizzeria, a name shouted at Phil all day from the gallery (two young ladies in the crowd even suggested he meet them there after the round).
A try at eagle wouldn’t fall, but it was a birdie and good enough to at least put Mickelson squarely inside the cut line. A little magic just when he needed it most.