LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Phil Mickelson will be the first to admit he’s a bit streaky.
Sure, it’s been more than a year since his last victory.
Then he goes and makes 10 birdies while shooting 62 on the final day at Firestone.
Just like that, Lefty is being mentioned as one of the favorites at the PGA Championship.
Can he keep it up?
Mickelson has no idea.
“If I could answer that question, it would be a lot easier,” he said Tuesday after a practice round at Valhalla Golf Club. “It’s been 20-plus years and things are just that way. Rather than question it or try to find an answer, I just accept it as being the way it is and look forward to it when it does happen. It’s fun when it does.”
Mickelson hasn’t had a lot of fun since winning the British Open at Muirfield nearly 13 months ago. He failed to crack the top 20 at any of the last four majors. His highest finish on the PGA Tour is 11th. His putting got so shaky that he experimented with a claw grip during the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, only to switch back to a conventional style right in the middle of the tournament.
He looked downright lost.
Nothing changed through the first two rounds of the Bridgestone Invitational, when Mickelson’s belief that his game was rounding into form was shattered by rounds of 71 and 73.
“It would be out of nowhere for me to play well,” he grumbled just last Saturday.
The very next day, Mickelson put up his lowest round since a 60 at the 2013 Phoenix Open.
“It’s just kind of the way I play golf,” he said. “I’m streaky. I’ll get on rolls and get some good momentum, and all of a sudden the hole looks huge. Then there are days where it’s just the opposite. It’s just the way it’s always been for me. I don’t have a great answer.”
More than anyone, Mickelson realizes the way he was feeling just a few days ago may be gone by the time he tees off in the final major championship of the year.
“In this game, things can turn around, really, in an instant,” he said. “I’m interested to see how it goes Thursday and Friday. But certainly my confidence level and my practice sessions are totally different. I don’t feel like I’m searching. I feel like now I’m just trying to acquire that same feel from Sunday, and I feel like I’ve found what I’m looking for. I just have to maintain it.”
At 44, Mickelson can no longer keep up with big hitters like Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, who joined Lefty for Tuesday’s practice round. Both struck it farther off the 10th tee during the PGA’s long-drive competition.
Someone asked Mickelson what it felt like to go against players who grew up idolizing him.
“Just makes me feel old, that’s all,” he said, smiling. “When someone says, ‘Yeah, I used to watch you on TV when I was 6,’ how do you respond to that?”
Mickelson has another goal this week besides winning.
He’s played his way onto every Ryder Cup team since making his first in 1995, but he’s 10th in the points heading into the final event before the top nine spots are determined. If he doesn’t move up at Valhalla, he’ll have to rely on a fallback position: being one of three picks by captain Tom Watson.
That would seem a mere formality.
Mickelson would prefer to claim his place without Watson’s help.
“I’m confident that I’ll get on the team on my own and won’t require that pick,” Lefty said. “I want to keep that going, of making the team on my own and not needing a pick.”
A win would remove any doubt.
It also would end Mickelson’s longest drought since 2003.
“Ideally, you want to have some momentum through the course of the year, through the course of the month heading into big tournaments,” he said. “When you’re in contention, it’s a lot easier to stay up there than when you haven’t been playing well.”
Of course, Mickelson is never quite sure how things will turn out.
He learned long ago to expect the unexpected.
“You don’t want to put too much emphasis,” Mickelson said, “on just one round.”
Phil Mickelson hits from the fairway on the 18th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. The tournament is set to begin on Thursday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)×