Phil Mickelson became the oldest man to win a major title as he claimed the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island amid extraordinary scenes as thousands of fans swarmed on to the final fairway to witness the winning moment.
It was a throwback victory for 50-year-old Mickelson and a reminder of what sport has been missing in the absence of crowds during the Covid pandemic.
Spectators swamped the American as he marched up to the 18th green on his way to clinching a sixth major title, eight years after his last.
“It was quite unnerving, but exceptionally awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before,” said Mickelson, who won on six under par at the Ocean Course after a closing one-over-par 73.
He finished two clear of fellow American Brooks Koepka, who closed with a 74, and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who signed for a 73.
Mickelson takes the record of oldest major winner from Julius Boros, who won this title in 1968 at the age of 48, and also joins England’s Nick Faldo and American Lee Trevino as a six-time major winner. Only 11 players have won more.
“This is just an incredible feeling. I just believed that it was possible yet everything was saying it wasn’t and I hope that others find that inspiration,” added Mickelson.
“It may take a little extra work and harder effort to maintain the physicality, or maintain the skills, but gosh is it worth it in the end.
“I just love this game and I love what I do and I love the challenge of competing against such great players.”
He will now be among the favourites at next month’s US Open, the only major he needs to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. It is being held near his home in San Diego at Torrey Pines, a course he has won three titles on.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry finished in a tie for fourth at two under after closing rounds of 69.
They were level with American Harry Higgs and England’s Paul Casey, who scored consistently throughout the week and posted his third 71 on Sunday.
Mickelson thrills on final day
It was a final pairing packed with potential storylines: Mickelson aiming to become the oldest major championship winner, Koepka looking for victory just two months after serious knee surgery.
In the end, it was Mickelson who controlled the narrative and held his nerve during a tense final round.
Koepka was eight months old when Mickelson claimed his first of his 45 PGA Tour titles as an amateur at the Northern Telecom Open in 1991 and 13 years later the American became a major champion with the first of his three Masters crowns.
He added to those at the 2005 PGA Championship and 2013 Open, but victory at Kiawah Island must rank as the most remarkable after dropping out of the top 100 earlier this year for the first time since 1993.
Mickelson says he has being trying to improve his concentration and stay more “present” by practising meditation and other drills to increase his focus and he needed all of that composure on a rollercoaster front nine.
He led by one overnight on seven under, but began with a bogey and when Koepka rolled in a birdie from 12 feet a two-shot swing handed the 31-year-old the lead.
But a double bogey followed for Koepka as he duffed a chip from a bank behind the second green and then watched as Mickelson clipped on before sinking a birdie putt to reclaim top spot and take a two-stroke advantage on the field.
Mickelson held on to the sole lead despite a bogey at three after two loose chips around the green, but only because Koepka missed a three-footer for birdie.
And then a moment of magic from the champion, chipping in from the sand to birdie the par-three fifth and send the Kiawah Island crowd almost delirious.
Mickelson followed up with a bogey and Koepka took advantage by pulling back level, only to send a disastrous approach at seven on to the cart path on his way to another dropped shot as Mickelson got up and down for a birdie that sent him clear once more.
The veteran hit the turn with a two-stroke lead intact and increased it to four at 10 with a well-made birdie as Koepka found the sand and failed to recover.
The left-hander had a five-stroke lead at the same stage on Saturday, only to watch it evaporate over the next three holes, but not even a fan picking up his ball after a wayward drive at 11 could faze him this time as Mickelson saved par and Koepka bogeyed to drop five back, meaning Oosthuizen was once again his closest challenger.
Having avoided the water off the tee at 13, Mickelson then found it with his approach to the green and made back-to-back bogeys, though Oosthuizen dropped two shots on the same hole after also finding the water.
That meant Mickelson led by three shots with four to play.
Oosthuizen, whose sole major win came at the 2010 Open, birdied the 16th to keep the fight alive but moments later Mickelson, who turns 51 next month, hit the longest drive of any player this week on the hole, some 366 yards, on his way to a birdie of his own.
Mickelson said he was having fun this week, though there was nothing enjoyable about the daunting par-three 17th, but he could afford to drop a shot and head to the 18th with a two-stroke advantage.
He pushed his drive left and as he assessed his options from in front of a hospitality stand, fans started to swarm onto the fairway.
After some deliberation, he hit a nine-iron into the heart of the green, and the boisterous crowd immediately surrounded him and Mickelson, with the help of officials, had to push his way through to reach the putting surface to put the finishing touches on his historic win.
Koepka was disappointed with his putting on Saturday and also missed several close-range attempts on Sunday.
He still had an outside chance of winning the tournament on the last but had to finish amid the madness surrounding Mickelson.
“It would have been cool if I didn’t have a knee injury and got dinged a few times in the knee in that crowd,” said the four-time major champion who took a couple of extra minutes to make his way through to the green.
“It’s cool for Phil. But getting dinged a few times isn’t exactly my idea of fun.”
Harrington rolls back the years
An eagle at the par-five second and chip-in birdie on the 14th were the highlights of European Ryder Cup captain Harrington’s round as he rolled back the years to card a three-under 69 on Sunday and finish at two under par for a share of fourth place.
That is the three-time major champion’s best finish at a major since winning this event in 2008.
The 49-year-old had a terrific time playing with fellow Irishman Lowry and the Open champion also posted a 69 to finish at two under.
“I don’t think I have enjoyed a round of golf as much as I have playing with Shane,” said Harrington.
“It was amazing how relaxed I was from tee to green. When you have your head in the right place it is much easier to play good golf. It was a very nice pairing.”
Casey also shared fourth and briefly threatened to put an early run together with back-to-back birdies on two and three, but five birdies overall were offset by four bogeys as he finished four off the lead.
Justin Rose failed to break par in the opening three days but posted one of the rounds of the day with a five-under 67 that included eight birdies, a bogey and a double to leave the Englishman one under for the tournament.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy was unable to tame the Ocean Course as he did during his 2012 victory, with the pre-tournament favourite finishing on five over par.
Jordan Spieth’s wait to complete the career Grand Slam continues after he finished at two over par, one behind Japan’s Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, while US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau faded to three over par with a final-day 77.
A walk that will live in the memory
The US PGA Championship’s Covid-19 protocols for fans included “no handshakes, fist bumps, autographs, photographs or selfies”; for people attending to “respect their [players’] space and watch your distance” and “avoid unnecessary touchpoints and large crowds”. Fans who had not been vaccinated were advised to wear masks when they could not be socially distant.
But Mickelson needed a security and police escort to make his way through the jam-packed crowd of spectators to complete his historic moment.
“I’ve never had that experience and to see that, to feel that kind of excitement and enthusiasm, and be at the forefront of that, was pretty special. That’s a moment I’ll always, always cherish.”