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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Look who’s leading the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island: Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson, whose 51st birthday is less than a month away (June 16), completed a remarkable first two days on the daunting Ocean Course, where the wind has consistently been blowing some 20 miles per hour off the Atlantic Ocean and wreaking havoc for some of the world’s best players.
Playing in the morning wave of tee times Friday, Mickelson shot a 3-under-par 69 to get to 5-under through 36 holes. At the time he completed his round, he was one shot behind Branden Grace, who’d gotten to 6-under par.
But Grace lost three shots on his final two holes with a double bogey on 17 and a bogey on 18, which left Mickelson with a two-shot lead as he left the course for his rental home, where he would relax on a couch and watch the afternoon wave battle the treacherous conditions in pursuit of him.
Mickelson, who won the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol and is a five-time major winner, hasn’t had a top-10 finish in a major championship since his runner-up finish at the 2016 British Open. His tie for 18th at the 2019 Masters is the only top-20 finish he has in a major in that 16-event span.
Two more days like Thursday and Friday and Mickelson can become the oldest player ever to win a major championship, surpassing Julius Boros, who was 48 years and four months old when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
“I’m having a lot of fun,’’ Mickelson said, beaming after his round. “To know I’m playing well heading into the weekend, to be in contention, to have a good opportunity, I’m having a blast. I’m excited for the weekend.’’
The remarkable element to Mickelson’s two rounds has been the way each has unfolded.
On Thursday, playing the more benign front nine, Mickelson shot 2-over-par 38, made the turn to play the more difficult (into the wind) back nine and he shot a 4-under-par 32.
On Friday, playing the back nine first, Mickelson shot a 2-over-par 38, made the turn and shot a 5-under-par 31 on the front nine for his final nine. That leaves him a cumulative 9-under-par 63 on his two final nines.
Along the way, Mickelson, after hitting only 6-of-14 fairways on Thursday, hit 11-of-14 on Friday. His game off the tee is often a sideshow when he starts hitting balls off the reservation and making crazy par saves from all over the yard.
On Friday, he looked in complete control.
“In the position he is, I expect him to contend and I wouldn’t put it past him being there at the end of the week,’’ said Padraig Harrington, one of Mickelson’s two playing partners the past two days. “I think he has the bit between his teeth. I think he believes he can do it in these conditions.’’
Australian Cam Smith showed no surprise at the position Mickelson is in, regardless of how old he is or what form he’s been in at recent major championships.
“He’s still Phil Mickelson to me,’’ Smith said. “He can show up and he knows that he can win. He walks around like he can still win, and he talks the talk. It’ll be tough to catch him, I think.’’
Strong words, considering the tournament is merely halfway complete.
“There were no foul balls,’’ said Jason Day, Mickelson’s other playing partner the first two rounds. “Usually with Phil you can get some pretty wide ones (drives), and he kept it straight out in front of him. No kind of off-the-map drives that get him out of position and make it really tough on him. With Phil, you kind of get some off-the-map drives that make it very interesting, and he’s kept it very, very straight over the last two days.
“And, his iron play was pretty tight. There was a lot of quality iron shots into the greens. When he was out of position, he just kind of — you know Phil — he got up-and-down. If he can keep it straight and hit it the way that he’s been hitting, he’s going to be around on Sunday for sure.’’
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