On Phil Mickelson and Age

Third Connecticut Lake, New Hampshire.

In 2009, Tom Watson almost won the British Open at age 59.

It really came down to one shot that went a bit too far and bounced in the wrong direction on the 18th hole at Turnberry in southwest Scotland. A few yards shorter, a different bounce, Watson would have been in the history books as the oldest player to ever win one of golf’s major championships.

I remember that weekend well and remember rooting for Watson as he played the final holes. The location for such a victory couldn’t be better. A course that rewards players with experience and skill over pure power and length. I felt I was watching history in the making; and I was, but not the history I had hoped for. It is still thrilling to watch film of that day, or read interviews with Watson about what he was thinking and feeling as he realized he had a true chance of winning. He was more than a past champion playing the tournament as a matter of professional courtesy. He was a contender in a field of the best golfers in the world.

Until a few weeks ago, Julius Boros held the record for the oldest player to win a major golf tournament. He won the PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio in 1968. He was 48 years old at the time. His record stood for 53 years.

Two weeks ago, the Boros record was finally broken by Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship at Kiwah Island, off South Carolina at age 50. To make it happen, Mickelson said, he had to work harder, practice more, and focus more. During a post win news conference he emphasized over and over again that the challenge in recent years has not been his strength, or his fundamental ability, but his need to focus on concentrating and staying in the moment, one shot at a time.

I don’t pay attention to professional golf as much as I used to, but the day after Mickelson’s victory I watched a replay of his march down the final hole and his post round news conference which ran about twenty minutes long. Mickelson looked to me as he has always looked. Tall, lanky, thinner than I last saw him, but still with an absurd tan line across his forehead from his constant time in the sun wearing a golf hat.

As you might expect, the news media was focused more on the meaning of his win, at age 50, than the round itself. When he was asked about specific shots or specific holes, it was always couched in language about his age and the record he now holds. Several times, he answered the questions the same way. At age 50, Mickelson, like most people his age, have a good sense of who they are and what they are capable of, no matter what others may think of them.

He paused respectfully after each question and seemed to be thinking it over before answering but he kept coming back to one truth. I knew “there was no reason I couldn’t win.” Mickelson said he had the skill, the power, the swing, the knowledge, but that his biggest challenge was staying calm and in the moment. He gave credit to his coach, his wife, his brother who caddied for him and whispered to him, but he said the most important aspect of his game now is simply forcing himself into a mental zone that allows for no distractions. He said he didn’t want to get too spiritual, but that the practice of meditation has helped keep him in the frame of mind to compete. And he added, there is no reason to think his PGA win is not the first win in what could be a string of victories. He also allowed, that it could be his last win ever on the PGA Tour.

As I watched Mickelson calmly answer questions with courtesy and grace, I wanted to jump in a few times and answer the same questions in my own way. As someone moving through what I must admit is considered advanced middle age, I know I have been under-estimated at times because of how old I am and I know I have been discounted by younger people for a variety of age based reasons. I must admit, I felt the same way about older people when I was younger.

Let me make clear, I am not complaining. I am offering my observations.

Here’s the thing; to all those younger than me who haven’t figured this out yet. As you get older, unless there is some obvious health condition, or age related complication, you don’t really feel any older, or perceive yourself as any older, with each passing year. Except when you look in the mirror, your view of the world is the same view you’ve had all your life and your perception of your physical bearing, your perception of how others see you, your strength, your mental acuity is exactly the same as when you were ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years younger.

I fully understand why Phil Mickelson had trouble answering questions about his age and his new record as the oldest player to win a major. Although he knows the history of sports and athletics, although he knows all great athletes eventually can no longer compete against younger, stronger athletes; Mickelson has not reached that conclusion about himself. He is not in that category yet. He wakes up every morning thinking he can win. Tom Watson felt the same way.

Beginning a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, I began teaching college courses at a local university. I am aware that my students look at me and see an older man. Maybe even an old man. But I look at them and all I see is a room full of younger colleagues. Do I have some things to teach them, based on life experience? Yes. But they have things to teach me as well. Their age is only important to me when I see it as the source of a short-coming. Failure to meet a deadline. Inability to listen. Selfishness. Insensitivity. These things don’t happen all the time, but when they do, they are the only things that draw my attention to their age.

I’ve been where they are. While it is easy for me to understand how they might view me as old, and from another era, I have to force myself to see myself that way. When I read that her husband died, I recently had reason to reflect on my fifth grade teacher. I remember thinking of her as old the year I spent with her in elementary school. But looking back, I realize now that she was actually younger than my own mother and probably in her late 20s or early 30s when she was teaching me.

You are as young as you feel. That’s not true. You are as old as you are and there is no way around it, but unlike my parents’ generation, there is no longer an expectation that you must give up certain things you love when you reach a certain age, or behave a certain way because you are older, or dress in a manner that reflects where you are on life’s calendar. You can do whatever you are capable of doing, compete in any field you are capable to competing in, until you just can’t anymore.

And to those who will some day be where I am, in terms of age (and I hope that’s all of you), I want you to know what it looks like from here. It looks exactly the same to me as it did when I was riding my bike around the neighborhood during those ten week long summer recesses from school that felt as if they lasted a whole year. There is no difference from my perspective, I just have a better feel for the course.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.