Ever the politician, Phil Mickelson has officially flip-flopped on his stance on PGA Tour Champions golf. After at first deriding the senior circuit, Mickelson went out and won twice in two events at the Charles Schwab Series at Ozark National and the Dominion Energy Charity Classic. It led him to think that he might be playing even more on that tour in 2021 than he previously considered.
Here’s what Mickelson said 12 months ago at The American Express, where he’ll tee it up this week against Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay and Patrick Reed.
“When I stop hitting bombs, I’ll play the Champions Tour,” he said. “But I’m hitting some crazy bombs right now. No, I still have speed, I still, there’s no reason I couldn’t play out here.”
Mickelson was ranked No. 82 in the world after missing the cut at that event last year, but he actually went on to post several top-three finishes throughout the year and heads into this year’s tournament nearly 20 spots higher at No. 67 in the world.
Nevertheless, Mickelson said his days on the PGA Tour could be limited, I suspect, because he got a sweet taste of victory doing laps with the 50-plus crowd at three-round events where his bombs actually go further than everyone else’s.
“I feel like I’ve made a few good strides, and I’m excited to start the year and see if I’m able to continue playing at the highest level,” Mickelson said this week. “If I am, I’m going to really try to play more events on the PGA Tour and make a push hopefully for the Ryder Cup.
“But if I don’t play well early on, I’ll start to re-evaluate things and maybe play a few more events on the Champions Tour because what’s fun for me is competing, getting in contention, and trying to win tournaments.”
Mickelson is, of course, exempt into the Masters for the rest of his life as well as the PGA Championship and Open Championship until he turns 60 (he’ll turn 51 this summer). He is not exempt, though, for the U.S. Open this year at Torrey Pines, but he’ll almost certainly play all the majors he’s qualified to play.
Still, you can hear the age (and maybe a bit of wisdom) from Mickelson as he heads into the last stretch of his career. He’s not the 24-year-old pin-seeking hero he was early in his career, or at least he’s not quite as good at playing the role.
“So I played two [PGA Tour Champions] events last year and I had some success winning both,” he said. “But what I really enjoyed was the ability to play, compete, be in contention and to play against guys that I have known for 30-plus years and compete against them again and see a lot of friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. [They have] golf courses that are more fun to play and are not built to beat you up the way a lot of PGA Tour courses are, and rightfully so. The PGA Tour courses and the setups are designed to challenge the best players in the world and so you’re going to have more difficult setups and pin placements and so forth.
“It was fun for me to play in the Champions events where they were set up a little bit more like the 1990s when I first came out on Tour and I could play much more aggressive.”
The first part of Mickelson’s 2021 slate will be interesting. He almost always thrives at the beginning of the year before fading late as his body and his mind tire out. But he’s been doing this for a long (long!) time. As Bob Harig recently noted, we just hit the 30-year anniversary of Mickelson’s first win on the PGA Tour. Hale Irwin (age 75 currently) won the first major Mickelson played in.
So no matter what Lefty decides to do, it’s been an all-time career and a joy to cover it (even all the nonsense). Mickelson has the freedom to go compete wherever he wants to compete. Hopefully it’s on the PGA Tour, but if not then he’s probably going to win just as much in the next phase of his career as he has in the last.