In the Rough: “Quiet, please!” On the ropes at Kiawah
By Charlie Mitchell
Unless you were hiding out under a mushroom all of last month, you probably took note that the PGA Championship was in town. The world’s finest players made their way to Charleston to walk the deep green fairways of Kiawah’s Ocean Course, truly an emerald jewel of the Lowcountry coast. Its rugged, windswept hills, so close to the sea, are a golfer’s oasis and have become iconic in the hallowed register of the game’s most elite venues. It has been nearly a decade since the Ocean Course last saw tournament play.
Tigers Woods was the one golfer notably absent from this group of the top 99 of 100 players in the world; he missed the tournament due to a horrific car accident months before that left his leg in tatters. His presence was certainly missed, though it was his long-time rival and friend Phil Mickelson who would ultimately steal the show. For now, the world turned its attention to Charleston, that most genial of hosts, and the gorgeous scenery of Kiawah Island.
My dad secured tickets for the weekend and invited my brother-in-law, Andrew, and me along. By the time we arrived late on Saturday morning, Phil Mickelson was already the story of the week. At 50, Phil was defying the natural order and confidently holding the top of the leaderboard against a slew of much younger gunslingers. Fowler, Koepka, Spieth, DeChambeau — all showed signs of struggle even as “aging” Phil maintained a calm sense of purpose. The course was playing tougher than ever. Bryson DeChambeau, his face still glistening with sweat from a grueling 18 holes, conceded after Friday’s round that Kiawah was the most difficult course he had ever played. And certainly when the wind picks up, it is one of the most challenging championship golf courses in the world, while still arguably one of the most handsome.
We decided to walk the front nine in reverse, spectating leisurely as we went. This seemed like a good idea since we would get to see all of the notable pairings quickly, and by the time we made it back to the first hole, Phil would be teeing off in the final group. For the first time in more than a year, “Phil fever” was the only infectious disease on our collective minds. Lurking just below my excitement, however, was the uncomfortable knowledge that this golf course could wreck even the best and most experienced players’ confidence.
Scores higher than par became the standard, and the players, who practice endlessly to maintain equilibrium, were beginning to lose their composure. I saw up close the toll that the golf course was taking on these players and how rapidly the best laid plans were blown out of the window on a stiff Atlantic wind. The Ocean Course was playing with its food.
The arrival of Stewart Cink
We approached the seventh green after watching local notable, Russell Henley, hit a spectacular shot into the par-three eighth. The galleries were starting to get bigger and places to stand becoming scarce. There are few grandstands at golf tournaments — courses are generally built for secluded recreation and not for spectating — and so fans at large tour events like this one learn that if they want to see the action, they had best get comfortable being at unreasonably close quarters with their fellow patrons. One of my dad’s many wonderful traits is a truly remarkable friendliness and lack of restraint when conversing with strangers in public. He and I stood behind the seventh green, gratefully in the shade of a mighty oak.
“Is this a par four or five?” he wondered aloud to nobody in particular.
Just in front of us, an older couple sat on collapsible chairs while enjoying a truly disgusting platter of pulled pork nachos. Between mouthfuls of bowling alley cheese and pig fat, the man raised his meaty hand to gesture “five.” My dad, no doubt ecstatic that his question had been so efficiently answered, took this as an opportunity to begin peppering the poor man with an interrogative barrage.
“Is that Stewart Cink on the fairway?”
“Did Spieth bogey here?” he continued, unfazed.
A slight flick of the stranger’s eyes let me know he heard but was trying to ignore.
My dad’s next question — something about the pulled pork, I think — was cut tragically short by the arrival of Stewart Cink on the green (Hey! It was him!) and a return to the action. We watched Stewart sink a birdie putt before we continued our march through the back nine, trading Stewart Cink puns the whole way.
At the par-three fifth, we turned and faced back toward the clubhouse. After walking several holes, I fancied a respite and so made myself comfortable behind the fourth green with a grand view across the putting surface and down the fairway to where the players were hitting their approach shots. This proved to be a wonderfully prudent spot to sit; the action here was constant.
There are some things that just don’t translate across the divide of television, subtle mannerisms and friendly quips that humanize these great athletes. It pleased me to see them congratulate each other’s good shots; there is a sense of camaraderie on the PGA tour that is difficult to find elsewhere in the hypercompetitive realm of professional sports. Even Bubba Watson, known grump, found it within himself to congratulate Will Zalatoris on a truly fantastic pitch shot that traversed the entire width of the green before almost rolling into the hole. Twenty-four-year-old Zalatoris made a name for himself at this year’s Master’s Tournament, where he missed out on the lead by only one stroke.
By this time, my good friend and “In the Rough” regular Dr. Jon Aker had made his way through the crowd from the entrance gate and joined our group. We checked his temperature upon arrival and found his “Phil fever” to be spiking. Great — so was ours! With no time to lose, we began walking back toward the first hole, enjoying the golf we got to see along the way. For the first time in person, I witnessed Bryson DeChambeau crunch a tee shot, a soaring three-wood that defied gravity as it hung in the air longer still than the other players’ drivers. I watched as 2008 PGA Champion Padraig Harrington squarely hit a tree out of the fairway on number three, which I was painfully able relate to. Unlike me, though, Padraig was able to knock his next shot close and escape the hole without too much damage to his scorecard or pride. His drive on number four was perfect, a flawless recovery, and I was reminded for the thousandth time that day just how good these guys really are.
Our excitement grew in proportion to the size of the galleries as we took a vantage point along the second fairway. Phil was on the tee. We had missed his first hole, but no matter. We could see his signature black outfit from a few hundred yards away, his white glove and driver tracing a wide disc around his body as he took several practice swings. He hesitated over the ball for a few moments in concentration before unleashing. It was impossible to see the ball against the brilliant sky at such a distance, so there was no way of knowing where it had gone until it dropped onto the fairway right in front of where we were standing. The crowd surrounding us scrambled for a better view, raucously cheering the perfect drive. Among the hubbub, it would have been easy to forget that Phil had a playing partner. Poor Louis Oosthuizen, a wonderful golfer and regular feature at the top of major leaderboards, was all but ignored, though he still held a share of the lead.
There was an audible sigh from the gallery as Phil pulled an iron from his bag for his second shot. The second hole at Kiawah is a reachable (for the pros!) par five — an eagle opportunity — and the crowd was hoping to see Phil hit his three-wood. What we didn’t know, in our ignorant disappointment, was that Phil was holding in his hand a club known as a driving iron, a much more explosive version of the standard iron. Quite unexpectedly, then, he heaved a massive swing and stared down his ball as it tracked with icy precision toward the distant green, ultimately landing 15 feet from the hole to the astonished screams of all in attendance. I looked at my dad with eyes wide. He simply pointed down the fairway and, already walking, said, “Let’s go.”
Phil’s front nine performance on Saturday was thrilling to watch. With each birdie, we grew rowdier. Kiawah decided to greatly reduce the number of spectators this year due to coronavirus protocol, only allowing 10,000 guests in the gates per day, but it seemed like every single one of them had turned up to watch Phil. And not just to watch, but to hang onto every swing with bated breath as the silent tension grew and the waves and birds were the only audible sounds. Then the smash of the driver or the tap of the putter, and the crowd would release, letting forth an almighty roar that raised the hair on my head.
We had to leave early on Saturday, and so we missed much of the back nine. Jon and I vowed to return the next day, though, so caught up were we in the excitement. Besides, I had met a cute girl at the Michelob tent who seemed to think I was funny.
The gallery surrounding Phil by the time he teed off on Sunday afternoon was enormous. It was hard to believe, when witnessing it, that the crowd at this year’s tournament was significantly pared down. To have a decent view of the man I found myself contorting my body in all sorts of positions, peering over shoulders and between legs in an attempt to get Phil, his ball and a view of the green, all in the same frame.
By this point, young heavy hitter Brooks Koepka had climbed his way into a tie for the lead. Brooks is known for his gruff demeanor and intense attitude, a stark contrast from Phil’s calm manner as he smiled and strolled his way through a rather tumultuous front nine, showering the crowd with his now-signature thumbs-up.
When he stepped onto the tee at number seven, Phil had already carded three bogeys, two birdies and a par. The course was starting to show its teeth as wind gusted off the Atlantic and the greens hardened under a baking afternoon sun. My face, already rosy from yesterday’s round, was practically burned to a crisp. I groaned with the rest of the crowd as Phil’s second shot found the deep bunker to the left of the green and settled into the sand. From there, he would be grateful to save par, and it looked as if yet another bogey was in his future. The gallery became noticeably deflated at this prospect; nervous whispers rippled through the crowd. Was the party about to end?
Koepka’s hole was not going as planned either, and he mulled over a lengthy par putt as Phil took his stance in the bunker, lying three. In what would become one of the defining shots of the tournament, Phil expertly lifted the ball from the soft sand with a delicate splash and held his backswing. The ball landed softly on the putting surface and rolled decidedly into the hole for a birdie. It was a remarkable shot, even for a seasoned professional, and Phil raised his arms in delight as the loudest roar of the weekend erupted from around the seventh green. Koepka’s two-putt bogey placed him two shots behind Phil, whose confidence was presumably peaking, although I would have never known from his outwardly tranquil disposition.
But Koepka was not going down easily. He managed to conjure a string of birdies on a back nine that was playing as tough as it had all weekend. His determined drive was drawing him closer to a tie with Mickelson. Dangerously close. When the final group stood on the tee box at 17, it seemed like either player could win. Indeed, after Phil bogeyed the par-three 17th and Koepka parred, the gap between them narrowed to just one stroke. Another hole like the last would force a playoff. With one hole to play, tensions in the audience had reached a fever pitch.
Koepka vs. Mickelson
I rushed down the skybox staircase and out into the glaring sunlight, determined to be as close to the action as possible but struggling to find a place to stand. And then the unthinkable happened. I became aware of several spectators nearby pointing and watching what appeared to be a golf ball traveling in our direction. Sure enough, moments later Phil Mickelson’s drive bounded into the rough, almost dribbling across my feet. The rush of bodies to surround the ball hit me like a wave on the ocean and it took all of my resolve to hold my spot at the front of the line. It was a jovial crowd but a powerful one, to be sure.
It was one last treat at the close of my memorable weekend; Phil Mickelson hit his final shot from ten feet in front of me, where I could hear him chat casually with his caddy and notice the furtive smile that was beginning to form on his face. Under pressure that would make the lesser golfer tremble, Phil coolly drilled a nine-iron straight into the heart of the green, leaving himself 12 feet or so for birdie and a certain victory. As soon as his ball struck earth on the 18th green, the crowd became unhinged. In their fervor, groups of fans began to storm the fairway, trampling the ropes and security that attempted in vain to hold them back.
Unable to resist the crowd, and unwilling to be caught in the back row at such a moment, I sprinted onto the course and down the 18th fairway toward the green where a tight circle of elated fans was already forming. I managed to squeeze my way to the third row just in time to see Phil miss his birdie putt and tap in for par, and in doing so becoming the oldest player in history to win a major tournament. Suddenly, beer rained down from the sky as fans swung half-full cans around their heads in ecstasy. I jumped about and slapped hands with dozens of people I didn’t know. Phil Mickelson beamed.
It took hours to exit the grounds. Sitting in my car in standstill traffic, I had time to reflect on a truly epic weekend. I was just a small thing when Phil Mickelson turned pro in 1992, and now, nearly 30 years later — a lifetime, in my terms — I had stood on the 18th green as he became the oldest major champion in history. I contemplated the depths of time as I watched the final wisps of light die over the opaque line of pine trees that encircled the field. I thought of Phil, probably hoisting the trophy at that very moment, and the crowd of adoring fans on 18. If I live to be 100, I am not sure I will ever see anything quite like that again.
Charlie Mitchell has been swinging a golf club since he could stand. He remains humbled by the game and the lessons learned both on the course and in the clubhouse. Always eager for enlightenment, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.