PARAMUS, N.J. — The signs had been there earlier, but until those four straight days in Kentucky, until the four consecutive outstanding rounds at Valhalla, until that runner-up finish in the PGA Championship, the season’s final major, Phil Mickelson couldn’t really be sure.
Would he ever find his lost golf season?
“The PGA was a big week for me because it was the first time this year my game was back,” Mickelson said.
Standing in the shadow of the 18th green at the Ridgewood Country Club, after posing for photos with military members he’d joined in a dedication ceremony about an hour earlier, Mickelson looked and sounded like a man eager to take his first swing here at The Barclays, the tournament that begins Thursday and marks the first step in the season-ending FedEx Cup race.
Nearing the end of a year in which he is still without a win, there is so much Mickelson can look back on with regret. After failing to make the cut at the season’s first major, only the second time that’s happened to him at the Masters, Mickelson floundered. His putting was awful, his short game a mess, his personal brand of gutsy, let-it-rip golf serving more as liability than weapon.
“We all go through highs and lows, and I try not to dwell on it or worry about it because I know it will come back,” he said.
“And it slowly has.”
If the rumblings of that golf rebirth began on a Sunday in England, when Mickelson shot a final-round 68 at the British Open, they turned full roar at the PGA, when he battled champion Rory McIlroy to the final hole.
The dramatic end to the PGA included the sportsmanlike willingness by Mickelson and playing partner Rickie Fowler to let the McIlroy pairing behind them play up and beat the oncoming darkness, and ultimately, it ended with the 25-year-old McIlroy’s fourth major title.
For the 44-year-old Mickelson, there was disappointment, but there was also hope.
“That gave me an excitement and energy heading into the FedEx Cup and Barclays that my game is back and I’m ready to compete and get back into contention,” Mickelson said. “It was so fun being up there again, and the nerves and the excitement of it all. It got me excited.”
There’s a reason Mickelson has been cast as his generation’s people’s champ, the Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods’ Jack Nicklaus, the relatable star who stays around for autographs and photos after a practice round such as he did Tuesday.
He never seems to lose the childlike enthusiasm that goes along with playing a game for a living; never seems to lose the perspective gleaned from watching his wife and mom wage battles against cancer. He’s made millions of dollars on the golf course and off, but he’s been a worthy champion too, with three Masters titles, a PGA, and a British Open to his major résumé.
In other words, you can go ahead and print his Hall of Fame ticket, but just keep it in storage for a while, because Mickelson still is working toward future goals.
If the elusive U.S. Open title stands out as the obvious missing piece to career completion, Mickelson isn’t willing to dwell on the tournament that has crushed his heart so many times. He’s too busy thinking about now — “I have to play well this week and in the FedEx Cup to really make the year salvageable,” he said — and beyond.
He will be one of U.S. captain Tom Watson’s trusted veterans for the upcoming Ryder Cup — a tournament that pits a young, inexperienced American team as decided underdogs to a loaded European squad — and he already is eyeing a spot on the 2016 Olympic team.
The sport returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, and with points beginning to accumulate in 2015, Mickelson wants in.
“I don’t know why that’s important to me, but it is. I want to be a 46-year-old Olympian, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “So 2015 and 2016 are years I want to really focus on and I want to make sure I’m ready again.”
That’s why the PGA Championship was so important, for reminding Mickelson that his brain and his body can still come together and produce winning golf. There’s not much he can do to salvage 2014, but he can use the PGA as a springboard to some redemption.
“I don’t even know if [a win the rest of this year] would do it, because it hasn’t been a great year,” Mickelson said. “And I’m OK with that. I know that I’ve made great strides this year in driving the golf ball and I’ve made great strides in my wedge play, but it’s been a terrible year for my wedge and short iron. I also had a very poor year putting.
“So I’m more looking forward to 2015 and these next few events. After the Ryder Cup, I’ll probably take the rest of the year off, work on my fitness, work on my golf game and really focus on 2015.”
One lost season was enough. Now, Mickelson is hoping he found his game.