LA JOLLA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson became the oldest golfer to win a major when he conquered the PGA Championship last month at 50.
All it took was channeling his inner Tom Brady.
“I’ve been fortunate to spend time with him,” Mickelson, who turns 51 this week, said Monday afternoon at the US Open at Torrey Pines. “And when I’m around him, I learn a lot.”
Mickelson isn’t talking football, either. Like Brady, a slimmed-down Mickelson now talks about cutting sugar out of his diet to avoid inflammation. Like Brady, Mickelson started his own nutritional line — Coffee For Wellness, which is advertised as “a gourmet coffee blend to reduce stress, resist fatigue, and improve cognitive function.”
The two have become friends and semi-frequent playing partners — teaming up in a charity golf match last May against Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning, and scheduled to do it again this July against Bryson DeChambeau and Aaron Rodgers. Brady and Mickelson, who each won a championship in 2021, also are redefining what aging athletes can accomplish.
“It’s inspiring to see,” Mickelson said of Brady winning a Super Bowl at 43. “I learn a lot by just watching and observing the dedication, the hard work. He’s very disciplined in what he eats and recovery and taking the time to do the right things after the round and so forth.”
“When we would go play at Augusta and he’d stay at the cottages, he would be up hours before we played. He would go to the gym and do a bunch of band work for an hour just getting his shoulders and knees and hips and everything firing and activated.”
Mickelson, who started playing Champions Tour events last year and is supposed to be winding down his career, is suddenly the dominant story line of this week’s US Open.
Not only is Mickelson coming off his improbable PGA Championship victory at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, but he’s the hometown hero at Torrey Pines. Mickelson grew up in nearby San Diego, played high school matches at Torrey Pines, and won three PGA Tour events at the course, including back-to-back victories at the Buick Invitational (now the Farmers Insurance Open) in 2000-01.
“Although it’s a lot different than when I grew up 35 years ago, it still is a special site, and it’s in remarkable shape,” Mickelson said. “To make the course open to the masses is a special thing, and to have a major championship on that venue is exciting.”
Of course, Mickelson is battling two significant demons this week. One is his tortured history at the US Open. He infamously has never won the toughest test in golf, finishing runner-up six times. Lately in the national championship, Mickelson has barely been competitive. His last runner-up came in 2013, and since then has missed the cut twice and hasn’t finished inside the top 45 since 2014.
Mickelson’s other demon is his tortured history with Torrey Pines. Mickelson has little familiarity with the current iteration of the South Course, site of this week’s championship. It underwent massive renovations just weeks after his last win here in 2001, to attract US Opens (Tiger Woods won the first championship here in 2008).
The new course has chewed up Mickelson and spit him out. In his last 18 starts at Torrey Pines, Mickelson has just four top-10s, and he has missed the cut three times in his last seven years.
Mickelson never plays Torrey Pines now unless it’s at the Farmers. He also may have some lingering bitterness over his experience in 2015, when his bid to redesign the North Course was pulled out from under him. The California Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that a person or company that worked on preliminary designs and a request for proposal cannot participate in the actual design or construction.
“I spent so many hours [here] as a kid that, when the course was redesigned, all that local knowledge went away,” Mickelson said. “I really haven’t come out here and spent a ton of time. It’s hard to get a tee time out here, and when you do, it’s a long round.”
To get ready for this week’s championship, Mickelson once again channeled Brady and his methods. Before this year’s Super Bowl, Brady had his family go on vacation and leave him alone in their Tampa home for 12 days so he could prepare in solitude.
Mickelson didn’t send away his family, but has spent the last two weeks shut off from the world, obsessively playing Torrey Pines.
“I wanted to put in the right work,” Mickelson said. “So I’ve kind of shut off all the noise. I’ve shut off my phone. I’ve shut off a lot of the other stuff to where I can kind of focus in on this week and really give it my best chance to try to play my best.”
Mickelson missed the cut at Colonial Country Club May 28, and has been practicing at Torrey Pines since May 31.
“I really made an effort here, having the last week off, to spend time out here and really learn, relearn the greens,” he said. “Granted, I’ve played out here a bunch since the redo, but I really haven’t spent a lot of time to learn the nuances, and I did that early last week.”
Mickelson is still a long shot to win this week. He’s still the guy who has missed five cuts in his past 11 events in 2021, and as recently as late April said of himself, “I’m not physically able to keep my focus. As I’ve gotten older, I have a hard time focusing.” As of Monday, oddsmakers had him tied for the 28th-best odds to win the championship at +6600.
But who knows what kind of magic Mickelson can pull off this weekend if he can channel his inner Brady?
“The way he can mentally slow down when things aren’t going well and process it and then start to perform is another trait that you learn from him,” Mickelson said of Brady. “When you see somebody do it and do what he’s doing, which is play football at the highest level at an age that really nobody else has ever done it, it’s inspiring, and it’s motivating.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.