On a Sunday evening, with the sun setting over the beautiful ocean golf course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, the final pairing of Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson approached the 18th green. As the players approached, they were engulfed by a crowd of excited spectators, mostly rooting for Phil Mickelson, nicknamed Lefty for his left-hand swing on the course. The players, surrounded by South Carolina State Troopers to ensure their safety as crowd control measures instituted by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) failed, encountered a scene of excitement rarely seen in golf unless inspired by golf’s most famous modern-day player, Tiger Woods. The scenes around the 18th green can be seen in a pair of tweets from CBS Sports’s official Twitter, who covered the weekend rounds of the tournament.
Mickelson, who finished the tournament victorious after a two-putt for the win, became the oldest player to win one of golf’s four major championships. Lefty won the 2021 PGA Championship less than a month shy of his 51st birthday on June 16. Before Mickelson captured the PGA by two strokes over Koepka, the previous record-holder was Julius Boros. Boros won the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio, Texas, at just over 48 years of age. His victory was reported by Golf Compendium, where all the Major winners over the age of 40 can be found along with their age and the tournament they won.
After his win, Mickelson stated, “[t]his is just an incredible feeling because I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying that it wasn’t. And I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little bit of extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh, is it worth it.” When asked about his age factoring into his win, he remarked, “[t]here’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.” Further, he went on to state that the crowd was one he would never forget. As the Washington Post reported, Mickelson went on to say of the crowd and the tournament, “[i]t [was] an incredible experience. I’ve never had something like that. It was a little bit unnerving, but it was exceptionally awesome, too.”
Not both players were thrilled about the crowd’s involvement. The other person in Lefty’s pairing, Brooks Koepka, who finished second, speaking critically of the crowd, stated, “[y]eah it would have been cool if I didn’t have a knee injury and got dinged a few times in the knee in that crowd because no one really gave a sh*t.” PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh stated in a tweet from the PGA of America’s official Twitter, “we regret that a moment of high elation and pent-up emotion by spectators on the 18th hole. . .briefly overwhelmed security and made two players and their caddies feel vulnerable.” Waugh went on to say, “[w]e always put player safety at the top of our list and are grateful that order was restored. I have spoken to both players and apologized on behalf of the Association.”
For those unfamiliar with PGA tournaments, they are primarily staffed by volunteers. With the PGA itself stating in early 2020 that “[v]olunteers are the heart and soul of the PGA Tour.” Volunteers are involved in almost every aspect of the tournament, including “on-course marshalling.” While the scene at the 18th on Sunday, May 23, 2021, is not unheard of in golf, with one reporter questioning Koepka on how it compared to the crowd following Tiger Woods when he won his last Major at the Masters in 2019, it does underscore the unparalleled access to the athletes that spectators at golf tournaments experience.
Even with the questions around spectator access to athletes at golf tournament as the sport’s popularity solidifies after Tiger Woods brought it to national prominence during his spate of Major victories over more than two decades from 1997 through 2019, the weekend should be remembered for the unforgettable enthusiasm of the crowd cheering Mickelson on to accomplish a task no other has achieved at his age. Such an accomplishment must be particularly sweet for a golfer in Lefty, who for years was known for being the best golfer in the game without a Major victory, until he won his first in 2004 at the age of thirty-three. His 2004 Major victory was his first in 12 years as a professional golfer and began a run where he would win six major championships and only be a U.S. Open Championship short of completing a career Grand Slam (winning all four of golf’s Major tournaments in one’s career). A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Phil “Lefty” Mickelson will surely go down as one of our generation’s greatest golfers. Golf fans everywhere should be grateful for his ability to produce another weekend of magic at this year’s PGA.
Christopher Becker is a civil litigator practicing in New York. Christopher graduated from the University of Alabama’s School of Law in 2016. There, he was a Senior Editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review.