Early Friday morning, with the wind ripping off the Atlantic Ocean and into him, Phil Mickelson stood over a 187-yard second shot into the par-4 10th green at the Ocean Course, his first hole of the day.
Normally a smooth 6-iron or full 7-iron, Mickelson leaned on a 4-iron shot that bore through the breeze and landed 2 feet from the hole, setting up a breakfast birdie. At the par-5 11th, he made another birdie set up by a low, screaming driver second shot off the fairway, and suddenly he was a part of this PGA Championship that has so far been framed by whitecaps and wind gusts.
By the time Mickelson finished – nearly six hours after he started – his eyes were red from the wind but his mood was upbeat. At even-par 144 through two rounds on a powder keg golf course, he is close enough to the front to at least think about winning this weekend.
It’s been a while.
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In Mickelson’s past five starts, he’s missed two cuts, withdrawn once and not finished inside the top 40 when he’s made the cut. He’s eighth on the Ryder Cup points list and in danger of not being an automatic qualifier Sunday evening if he doesn’t play well at the Ocean Course.
“It’s been 18 years since I’ve had to worry about qualifying or being a captain’s pick. I felt like if I started to play better, it would take care of itself,” Mickelson said after impressing U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, one of his playing partners.
Whether Mickelson is one of the eight automatic qualifiers or not, he’ll be on the Ryder Cup team as sure as the American flag emblem.
He is golf’s neon light, its fireworks.
For a while now, he’s been flat, distracted, had a dull edge call it what you will. Mickelson called it “lethargic” recently.
But he’s in the second week of seven tournaments in a nine-week stretch that might define his season. He sounds like a man intent on making the most of it rather than going through the motions.
“I can feel my game get better,” Mickelson said after one-putting five times on his second nine to shoot 1-under-par 71 in wicked conditions.
His wife, Amy, is here this week and has spent part of her beach vacation kayaking through the creeks and inlets around Kiawah Island. “I’ve dunked a couple of them,” she said.
She’s now married to one of the owners of the San Diego Padres, an acquisition that has thrilled the man who has three green jackets and a plaque in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He loves sports, all of them.
He endorsed the Carolina Panthers’ pick-up of running back Mike Tolbert from his favorite team, the San Diego Chargers. “He’ll do really well there. I like what Ron Rivera has done with that team,” Mickelson said.
Being a part owner of his hometown Padres, Mickelson says he won’t be involved in personnel decisions, but he wants to reconnect the franchise with its fan base.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing them back together with the community,” he said. “There’s been a bit of disconnect the last few years and understandably so. The last few years I think the fan base has lost a little bit of faith in the team and we’ll see if we can turn that around.”
Sounds like a perfect job for a man who knows a thing or two about connecting with people.