Phil Mickelson turned pro the year Hideki Matsuyama was born – in 1992. Midway through 2021 PGA Championship, they are just two shots apart. ‘Lefty’ Mickelson, 50, winner of five Majors, but none since 2013, is a co-leader at 5-under, and Matsuyama, who attained a ‘God-like’ status in his home country, Japan, won the Masters only last month. Matsuyama is 3-under and two behind.
Sharing the lead with Mickelson is Louis Oosthuizen, an absolutely delightful character, who a decade in 2010 won his only Major, the Open at St. Andrews, no less, and marked the seven-shot win by a buying a tractor. Right, a tractor and not a Ferrari as golfers are wont to. “I am a farm boy,” he had said then after the win.
Since then he has come close to many a Major – he has finished runner up in all four Majors once each. He was second at Masters in 2012; second at the US Open and the Open in 2015 (he sure loves the Old Course) and at the PGA in 2017.
Oh yes, among the elite who have finished second at each of the Majors at least once, is also Mickelson, who has five wins and 11 seconds in Majors. He has been second at Masters once; twice at the PGA; six times at the US Open (the only Major he has not won); and twice at the Open.
Add at least one more name to the equation – Brooks Koepka, who loves the ‘biggies’. Of his eight PGA Tour wins, four have been Majors and one WGC. That is some record.
When it comes to a Major, Koepka wouldn’t mind suffering playing on one leg – remember Tiger Woods in 2008 US Open – and this week he is playing only his third event since the second place in Waste Management Phoenix Open. And yes, his last two events in last three months have been missed cuts at the Masters and Byron Nelson. Yet, here is just one behind Mickelson and Oosthuizen.
At a tournament like this one, one great round like 67, that Ooosthuizen almost had till his 18th hole bogey could make this week a winning one.
Of the four I mentioned, two have multiple Majors – Mickelson has five and Koepka one – while Ooosthuizen won his sole major a decade ago, but has consistently knocked on the door, while Matsuyama, after showing promising for long, finally prised open the door last month at Augusta National and was elevated national stardom and international acclaim.
Never mind the fact that Mickelson first played a pro event in 1992 – it will be 30 years next year – he really has always been capable of pulling off extraordinary things. He can turn on the switch at the most unexpected time and then carry on the momentum with some unbelievable golf shots. His magic has nothing to do with age. If there is a man, who can win a Major on the PGA Tour and the PGA Champions Tour (Seniors) in the same year, he is the one. No, not even Miguel Angel Jimenez or Bernhard Langer, who have set ablaze the Seniors Tour.
As for Oosthuizen, he is always lurking around. Almost unnoticed, and then suddenly he is in the mix. Tough courses and windy conditions are his forte. Make no mistake, this is the man, who is also capable of pulling of some amazing shots like the albatross at the Masters in 2012, an ace at the 2016 Masters and another ace at the 2016 Open at the Troon. He also had a hole-in-one at the WGC-HSBC in 2019. So, the bigger the event, the more likely is he to make a ‘stunner’.
Koepka makes no bones that it is ‘all about Majors’. Sure he loves to win, but it is the Majors that gives him the real rush. Little wonder then at last year’s PGA Championships, Woods had said, “I just think that big events, you see the same guys, and we see Brooksy up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether there’s crowds or no crowds.”
Hailing from a golf-crazy country, Japan, was always marked out for greatness. Right from his amateur days, when he played the Eisenhower Cup for Japan, and then twice won the Asia-Pacific Amateurs to get a spot into the Masters in 2011 and again in 2012. In 2015 as a pro he was fifth. And last month, after coming close to a few Majors, he finally had one – his favourite, the Augusta Masters.
Now that he knows what it takes to win a Major, don’t be surprised if he adds to the collection. Who knows, this might be the week, yet again.
If you want to add a dark horse to those four, my choice would be Korean star Sungjae Im, who is all of 23. He was second at the Masters last year but has enough talent to be a factor this week or for that matter any week.
Much as I love watching Collin Morikawa, the defending champion, and Viktor Hovland, one of my current favs, this may not be their week. But keep an eye on them.