TULSA — Here in the hot hills of northeast Oklahoma, Phil Mickelson once entered the players’ locker room at the end of the 2001 U.S. Open and stood at a sink in front of a mirror at 0 for 33 as a pro in major tournaments, his face epitomizing that athletic combination of spent and bummed.
Surely now for the 104th PGA Championship at this same Southern Hills, he would appear for a mass feting at a fine 6 for 115 in majors, a curtain call to his historic bow at Kiawah Island in South Carolina last year, where giddy swarms with beery veins followed golf’s oldest major winner ever up No. 18 beside the Atlantic.
Instead, while other defending champions have missed the defending part because of injury — Rory McIlroy at the 2015 British Open and Tiger Woods at the 2008 PGA, to name two — Mickelson has become the first to miss out because he made some vile comments about murder and execution published three months prior. It’s another nadir in his newfound role as ignoble recluse who has missed both the Masters and the PGA in firestorm avoidance.
This should be a celebration, right?” McIlroy said of Mickelson on Tuesday. “He won a major championship at 50 years old. It was possibly his last big moment in the game of golf. He should be — I think he should be here this week and celebrating what a monumental achievement he achieved last year. It’s unfortunate. It’s sad. Yeah, I don’t know what else I can say.”
Here, his shouting absence doubles as the “elephant in the room,” as PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh put it. Here, other people talk about him while he doesn’t talk about himself. Young comer Viktor Hovland called it “a bizarre situation, that’s for sure.” Longtime major-chaser Rickie Fowler called Mickelson’s self-inflicted plight “a rough go the last few months, a tough situation to be in,” and said, “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t feel like it’s the place that he should be right now.” Top-shelf golfers such as Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas said gently that they really didn’t have anything to say.
Brooks Koepka — who tied for second, two shots behind Mickelson, last year and won this event in 2018 and 2019 among four major titles — went his usual imperturbable route.
“Not here,” Koepka said of Mickelson. “There’s really not much else I can say.”
A few questions later, he did add something, which is that he expected more of himself than tied for second. “Last year I felt like [I] gave it away,” he said. “I didn’t put any pressure on him. I missed a two-foot putt on hole 4 or 3 or something like that and didn’t put any pressure all the way going through. Just didn’t do anything and just handed it to him.”
That said, Mickelson still does get to keep the 2021 title.
“Look,” said Waugh, whose organization runs the PGA Championship, “no one was more excited than us last year when Phil had his epic win, right? It’s amazing. He’s done something nobody else has ever done and win a major at 50. It was one of the great moments in golf, and we’ll never sort of forget it. We certainly looked forward to him defending. He’s not here. …