Across North America, people are getting old. They need diversions – healthy ones, challenging ones. Since the pandemic struck, interest in golf has surged in Canada and the U.S. alike, and in the biggest swath of the population – the 50-and-older crowd – they’re playing in droves.
The sport is such a fine fit. In golf, you don’t have to run. It’s a long walk, spoiled only occasionally. It’s health-improving and time-consuming, and if a good score isn’t in the offing, the stately emerald garden venues can at least bring peace of mind.
The game puts the onus on touch as much as power, on the mental as well as the physical and, with the exception of occasionally rowdy spectators, it’s oh-so-civilized. When they strike the ball, golfers abstain – sorry, tennis buffs – from primeval grunting.
And now comes golfing geezer Phil Mickelson, with his rousing victory this past weekend at the PGA Championship, to showcase another reason why golf tops other athletic endeavours. It’s timeless. At advanced ages, it can be played wonderfully. Tom Watson came within a hair of winning the Open Championship at 59 in 2009. Sam Snead competed well in tournaments until he was nearly 70. Amateurs in their 70s can still register low handicaps.
Mr. Mickelson’s triumph was one for the ages and the aged. He became, at 50, the oldest to capture a major championship. He put the lie to that lament, that crutch that’s used to excuse one’s decline in sport or other endeavours, that line we’ve heard a thousand times: “I’m getting too old.”
With a game that blended power and poetry, Phil the Thrill posted proof that you’re never washed up. To an aging nation, he was an inspiration.
His win was no accident, no freakish stroke of fortune. After being diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis some years ago, and after viewing tapes and being embarrassed at “the way I looked,” he carried out a physical and mental makeover. There was no succumbing to the mindset that age slows the reflexes, weakens the nerves, depletes energy, drains focus.
He fasted: “I love food, I’ve always craved food and now I don’t.” He trained, taking to the lab to find ways to increase his swing speed so it was faster than in his youth.
He knew that in golf, as the late hot-tempered great Tommy Bolt once put it, “the mind messes up more shots than the body.” So there followed meditation, yoga and exercises to improve concentration, so that when Mr. Mickelson stood over the ball, inner voices of anxiety wouldn’t take over. When he faced a putt in the “gag zone” – the three- to six-foot range – he could find calm.
“Golf is like life in a lot of ways,” Bill Clinton, a keen golfer like so many presidents, once noted. “The most important competition is the one against yourself. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted. And you get a lot of breaks you don’t deserve, both ways.”
So true. And Phil Mickelson, who is more cerebral than other players, knew it. He’d had his share of heartbreaks. He placed second in the U.S. Open six times. In 2006, he had the tournament won, but on Winged Foot’s last hole he calamitously chopped his way up the fairway to a double-bogey six to lose it.
In Minnesota, at the Interlachen golf club, they have a chamber called the Sobbing Room where members gather to bemoan their tortured moments. After that blow-up at Winged Foot, Mr. Mickelson repaired to his version of such a chamber, infamously declaring to reporters: “I’m such an idiot.”
But at the oceanside Kiawah Island links this past weekend, where the odds of him winning were like an asteroid hitting your house, no demons were present, least of all age.
A tell-tale moment came on the 16th hole in the final round. He blasted a 366-yard drive, besting the one by muscle-bound 31-year-old Brooks Koepka. Then from behind the green he had a pitch from a difficult bare lie. With a nerve-free touch, he lofted the ball ever so delicately onto the hard surface and watched it nestle beside the flag. What a shot.
Golfers in his homeland and beyond who were getting on and thinking improvement was beyond reach couldn’t help but be heartened by his achievement.
“He thinks he’s 25 years old again,” said his long-time manager, Steve Loy. “I think he’s going to win five more times, maybe 10. You can’t tell him no. Every time I try to tell him, ‘Look, we are running out of time,’ he’s going, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ ”
And nor do we. Thank you, Phil.
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