CAN Phil Mickelson pull it off? Can he really win a sixth major championship a few days short of his 51st birthday? Only last month, at the Masters, I recall profiling the left-hander and suggesting that, for all the long-term poor form at the majors (he hasn’t made the top 10 since 2016), it seemed inconceivable that we would not witness, at the very least, a few cameos from him in his 50s. I thought it might happen at Augusta; I never imagined for one minute that he might thrive in this week’s PGA Championship.
But he shares the halfway lead with Louis Oosthuizen at Kiawah Island, the pair of them on 5-under 139, one shot clear of Brooks Koepka, and a remarkable heist by Mickelson remains a possibility, one that will provide plenty of fun ahead of, and hopefully during, the weekend action. At the same time, we need to maintain some sort of perspective. He’s landed 13 wins from 27 halfway leads in the 21st century and, of course, for most of that time, he was at his peak. The last occasion he was in this position, last year, he faded outside the top 20 and the last time he led on the PGA Tour, earlier this month after 18 holes at Quail Hollow, the same thing happened. The one thing we know, however, is that few golfers in history have ever had the chutzpah which Mickelson possesses in spades – he will give this his all, from behind sunglasses, waving with a goofy grin at the galleries.
As the putts go down, the thumb comes up
Let’s have some fun and activate the thumbs this weekend pic.twitter.com/sOxwMEkBvr
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 21, 2021
His fellow pace-setter Oosthuizen has won eight times from 14 halfway leads, but he has a couple of monkeys on his back: the truth that he’s yet to win in America and the memory of his last 36-hole lead, in the 2019 Masters, when he back-pedalled to T29th on Saturday and Sunday. In contrast, Koepka is right where he wants to be. The four-time major champion has endured knee surgery this year and it is probably the biggest obstacle between him and a third PGA Championship win because he loves the pressure of the majors, and loves letting everyone else know he loves it. “It’s a major, I’m going to show up,” he said after his first round. “I love it when it’s difficult, I know mentally I can grind it. I’m ready to play.”
Koepka is priced 9/2, is well-deserving of sharing favouritism, and plenty will see enough meat on the bone for a weekend punt, less so at the same price Oosthuizen, whilst Mickelson’s 12/1 might attract the sentimentalist rather than the realist. Followers of the column have an interest because Branden Grace, tipped at 150/1, is tied fourth, just two shots off the lead and now 22/1. As hoped for, he’s loving the long game challenge, driving the ball below the wind, and his short game has been in excellent fettle too.
For a halfway tip let’s take a look at the numbers. In all, 15 of the last 30 winners of the PGA Championship were in the lead at halfway, but nine eventual champions were four or more shots back (none more than six). Windy, volatile tracs (which Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is) tend to aid comebacks so don’t be entirely surprised if someone makes a long range bid this weekend.
Could that be Ireland’s Shane Lowry, the reigning Open champion? Tee to green, he’s been solid through 36 holes. In fact, he ranks fourth for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, despite comically landing one blow on the beach. He also leads the field for Scrambling – an aspect of the game that was key when Rory McIlroy won here in 2012 and seems certain to remain that way over the weekend. He needs to find a putting stroke, because he keeps giving himself chances and not taking them, but his resilience has been strong. “I enjoy golf like this,” he said after hitting the weekend on level-par. “My game is in a good place. I feel like I played great yesterday and feel like I scored great today. If I can put those two things together at the weekend, who knows what could happen.”
Hideki Matsuyama has entered the chat.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 21, 2021
He’s five shots back so he needs help, as well as needing to play well himself, but tournament history says it can be won from his position and at 60/1 (four places) he’s not far off the price he started the week on. That quote supposed he might play okay, now he is, and we can still get a decent price. If you prefer a short game wizard closer to the lead, what about Grace’s fellow South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout? As a recent winner in his 20s he fits a couple of strong tournament trends, and he leads Strokes Gained Putting as well as ranking third for Scrambling. He’s also tight to the lead, tied with Grace and Hideki Matsuyama in fourth. He can be backed at 20/1.
A final point to note. Every single one of the last 30 PGA Championship winners was tied fifth or better with 18 holes to play, 29 were tied fourth or better, and 25 were tied third or better. In other words, Thursday morning’s very long list is now a short list and it will be even shorter by tonight. Bear it in mind if you have a punt before Sunday’s play.