The first time Phil Mickelson competed in the US PGA Championship, John Major was not yet halfway through his term as Prime Minister and Freddie Mercury’s ‘Living on my Own’ sat atop the UK charts. Paul Azinger, the US PGA champion, collected a cheque for $300,000.
The intervening years – all 28 of them – have witnessed a decorated Mickelson career but nothing that would surpass victory at Kiawah Island. Should Mickelson press home his halfway advantage at this staging of the US PGA, he would become the oldest major winner in history. Mickelson turns 51 in early June; to the victor here, $2.16m.
A second round of 69 afforded Mickelson what looked certain to be a brief clubhouse lead. His five-under-par was one shy of Branden Grace, who at that point had two holes to play. A ghastly double bogey, bogey finish by Grace left Mickelson two clear. A cavalry charge came as shadows lengthened, courtesy of Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka.
Both men edged a shot clear of Mickelson at six-under, Koepka thanks in no small measure to two eagles. Oosthuizen, seeking to break an unwanted run of never having won a professional event in the US, dropped his only shot of the day at the last. The South African posted 71, tied at the top with Mickelson.
Koepka bogeyed the 15th and 17th but bravely saved par at the last for a 71, staying firmly in contention at four-under-par. Hideki Matsuyama, the recently crowned Masters champion, sat alongside the resurgent Koepka at four under before trouble at the 18th; his five there left Matsuyama at three under.
Rory McIlroy could barely disguise his disgust at dropping shots on each of his closing three holes; he is three over after this 72. Erik Van Rooyen took matters a step further with the obliteration of a tee marker having found water at the 17th. The incident cost Van Rooyen a club head and will undoubtedly lead to further action by way of a fine. It was great television, though.
This was undeniably Phil’s day. Mickelson played the Ocean Course’s front nine, his second half, in just 31. The roars of approval as a 22ft birdie putt dropped at the last proved, once more, the scale of public support that follows him.
There was also firm backing from Padraig Harrington, who played in Mickelson’s company during days one and two. “Even second would be a disappointment for Phil,” Harrington insisted. “I think he has the bit between his teeth. I think he believes he can do it in these conditions.” The man himself, the man of the moment, was more coy about his chances.
“Right now there’s a lot of work to do,” Mickelson said. “But the fact is I’m heading into the weekend with an opportunity. I’m playing really well and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.” Mickelson, a five-time major winner, lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2005. His last success in one of golf’s big four came eight years ago, the 2013 Open at Muirfield.
Recently, Mickelson has been embroiled in strange times. Visible within a record of regular missed cuts is the odd fine round; he finished 21st at the Masters and opened the Wells Fargo Championship with a 64. His has been the name most regularly linked with the Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway tour. It feels poetic that, as that scheme has supposedly stalled in South Carolina, Mickelson has demonstrated his professional longevity.
The abiding memory of day two did not actually relate to Mickelson. Shane Lowry found himself on the beach after a wild tee shot on the 16th. Lowry, who is level and therefore very much in the championship picture, miraculously saved par. “I got very lucky there because where I hit my provisional wasn’t very good, either,” Lowry said. “It could have been anything.” Instead, a five.
Ian Poulter sits alongside Lowry, Harrington and Matt Fitzpatrick after adding a 70 to his first round of 74. Things had looked even better for Poulter after he covered his first dozen holes in six under, but he dropped four strokes over the closing stretch.
“Whenever you’re six under through 12 and you post two under par, it’s frustrating,” Poulter said. “But if you take the average for the last five holes today? I would say the average is minimum four over. It’s just playing that tough. We want a good test, right? We always want to test ourselves to the highest level. I think this is a super clever golf course.” This lack of bleating was admirable.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout joined his fellow South African, Grace, and Matsuyama on minus three courtesy of a 70. Paul Casey, Gary Woodland, Im Sung-jae and Kevin Streelman are a shot further back alongside Corey Conners, who led after 18 holes but struggled to a 75 on day two.
Dustin Johnson, Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Thomas and Sergio García were among high-profile names to miss the cut. YE Yang, the 2009 champion, was disqualified after signing for the wrong score; given there were nines and a seven involved, it is little wonder he lost track.