KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The image has become familiar over the years. Phil Mickelson holes a birdie putt and drops that left fist in tempered celebration as he makes his run up the leaderboard in a major.
This was Friday at the PGA Championship, and he kept right on going until he tied for the lead with Louis Oosthuizen going into the weekend at Kiawah Island.
Even at age 50.
Tentative on the toughest stretch as he started dropping shots by missing putts, Mickelson began to look ageless with brilliant iron play and a pair of big birdies that led to a 31 on the front nine of the Ocean Course and a 3-under 69.
Oosthuizen had the best round of the week going, not so much because of his five birdies, but rather a card with no bogeys. That ended on the 18th hole that cost him the outright lead. He still had a 68 and will be in the final group Saturday.
Not to be overlooked was four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, whose two eagles were offset by four bogeys in a round of 71 that left him one shot behind.
Mickelson and Oosthuizen were at 5-under 139, the highest 36-hole score to lead the PGA Championship since the last time at Kiawah Island in 2012 when three players were at 140.
Mickelson is the oldest player to have a share of the lead at the midway point of a major since Fred Couples (52) in the 2012 Masters.
“It’s really fun, obviously, to make a putt on the last hole, finish a round like that and then to have that type of support here has been pretty special,” Mickelson said.
The last birdie was from just inside 25 feet on the ninth hole, with cheers that sounded louder than the limited gallery allowed and carried plenty of hope that Lefty could become golf’s oldest major champion on one of the tougher tracks.
The record belongs to Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
Branden Grace had a bogey-free round and was in the lead at 6 under until he hit his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th and made double bogey, and then made bogey on the closing hole for a 71.
Mickelson was being interviewed on TV when Grace fell back with his double bogey, and this development immediately was conveyed to him. He was not overly excited.
“If you were to tell me that Sunday night, I’d really enjoy that,” Mickelson said. “But right now there’s a lot of work to do. … The fact is I’m heading into the weekend with an opportunity and I’m playing really well and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Mickelson has not won on the PGA Tour in two years. His last major championship was the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. He no longer is among the top 100 in the world.
But he’s Phil Mickelson, who has spent a career leaving fans wondering what he’ll do next.
“I think he has the bit between his teeth,” said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who played alongside Mickelson for two days. “I think he believes he can do it in these conditions. He’s not here to make the cut.”
The cut was out of reach for Dustin Johnson, who shot 74 and for the first time in his career missed the cut in consecutive majors in the same season. He joined Greg Norman in 1997 as the only No. 1 player to miss the cut in back-to-back majors.
He’ll keep his No. 1 ranking because Justin Thomas also missed the cut with rounds of 75-75.
Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama had six birdies in his round of 68 and was in the group two shots behind with Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenuit (70). U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau shot 71 and was four behind.
Only 18 players remained under par.
The relentless wind made the five-plus hour rounds feel even longer, and it made a sport feel like hard work. Cameron Tringale, who started on No. 10, got within two shots of the lead until playing Nos. 16-18 in 10-over par. He was among 20 rounds at 80 or higher.
Erik van Rooyen was so frustrated that he slammed his club into the tee marker after his shot went into the water on the 17th. The head came off, too – from his club, not to mention his shoulders.
“It’s fun in a kind of a sick way,” Ian Poulter said. He was 6 under through 12 holes, the best start of the week, when he noticed a video board behind the 13th green that posted his score and suggested he was in range of the course record.
It’s a wonder Poulter’s eyes didn’t pop out of his head.
“I just started laughing to myself like, ‘Who in the world would write that and put that on a board with that last five holes to play?’” Poulter said.
He bogeyed four of his last six, which feature the four hardest holes on the course, for a 70.
“It’s not very enjoyable out there because it’s so hard, and every hole is a disaster waiting to happen,” British Open champion Shane Lowry said. “So it’s very stressful and there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of nerves and a lot of tension out there, but you just have to get on with it and try and hit the best shots you can, and that’s all I’ve been doing.”
Lowry managed a 71, including a par save on the par-5 16th when he hit his drive so far right it was on the beach.
Mickelson had no such issues. He has shown glimpses in recent weeks, but he is concerned about losing focus. This had his attention. He also has a 2-wood in the bag that helps him control his accuracy, at least with the wind at his back. Mickelson missed only three fairways.
“If he can keep it straight and hit it the way that he’s been hitting, he’s going to be around on Sunday for sure,” Jason Day said. “With Phil, you kind of get some off-the-map drives that make it very interesting, and he’s kept it very, very straight over the last two days.”