Will Phil Mickelson’s major victory postpone Champions tour debuts?

AKRON, Ohio — Phil Mickelson becoming the oldest major winner in PGA Tour history at age 50 could have a ripple effect on the PGA Tour Champions.

Mickelson’s triumph in the PGA at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island last month will likely postpone his return to Firestone Country Club, which now hosts the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship after last staging the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in 2018.

But his victory also raised the question of how it would play out in the minds of Mickelson’s peers who are about to turn 50.

Joining the Champions tour later this year are four-time PGA Tour winner Robert Allenby (July 12) and three-time major winner Padraig Harrington (Aug. 31). Australian John Senden (April 20) competed in this week’s Senior Players; Stuart Appleby (May 1) did not.

Former British Open champions David Duval (Nov. 9, 2021) and Justin Leonard (June 15), former PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang (Jan. 15), as well as Brian Gay (Dec. 14, 2021) and Notah Begay III (Sept. 14) can join the Champions circuit in 2022. Duval, Leonard and Begay now work as television analysts.

Bridgestone’s agreement to host the Akron tournament runs through 2022.

While some like Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker have been able to straddle both tours, Mickelson’s success seemingly would prompt some PGA Tour players to hang on longer before making the leap to the senior circuit.

But Furyk, Stricker and Fred Couples consider Mickelson unique and don’t envision a Phil factor disrupting the Champions Tour.

“Phil’s a little bit of an anomaly,” Furyk said Wednesday. “He’s won 45 times, so other than Tiger [Woods] and maybe Vijay [Singh] in their 40s, no one else is really at that level in our era.”

Furyk, 51, said he’s been competing against — and losing to — Mickelson for decades. So he’s probably in no rush to see Mickelson come back to Firestone, one of Furyk’s favorite courses.

“He’s always been the guy at our age level that we had to beat,” Furyk said. “When he was a junior golfer, he was good enough to win in college. When he was in college, he was good enough and did win at the PGA Tour level. Then he went on to win all those events.

“I really take what he does with a bit of a grain of salt. Like if we were always comparing ourselves to him, we basically always got our butts kicked along the way.”

Stricker, 54, said players must listen to their bodies and consider how they’re playing when they approach 50.

“Phil’s a unique player, a special player, and he’s still got that flexibility and that length that most guys when they turn 48, 49, even before that they’re losing distance, and he picked up distance. He’s worked hard at it,” Stricker said. “For him to be able to do that was something extraordinary.

Steve Stricker

Steve Stricker watches his approach shot from the No. 8 fairway during the third round of the 2021 Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at Firestone Country Club on Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Akron, Ohio. Photo by Akron Beacon Journal

“I think you’ve just got to see where you’re at with your own game. Guys are going to see that and they’re going to say, ‘Hey, it’s possible,’ for sure, and maybe work towards that. But everybody’s a little bit different, especially the older we get.”

Furyk measured his driving distance against others on the PGA Tour to help him decide. He’s now fully committed to the Champions Tour save for occasional venues where he’s performed well.

“The longest I ever averaged in my career was 282 off the tee,” Furyk said of the 2015 season. “No. 100 [on the PGA Tour] was 289, so I was giving up seven yards, which is not a big deal. Cut to 2020, my last full year. At 50 I averaged 281, I was one yard off my all-time distance, but No. 100 was 298. Now, instead of giving up seven yards, I was giving up 17. I’m giving up two or three irons a hole for an entire week.

“That season I led the Tour in greens saves, but it’s a lot harder to be close when you’re giving up that much distance. So it was apparent to me there are courses I really feel I can compete, but to do it for an entire season was harder. And I really enjoy being out here. My wife and I now have a Champions tour event, so it made it even that much easier to support this tour 100 percent.”

Jim Furyk

Jim Furyk makes his second shot from the bunker on No. 7 during the third round of the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at Firestone Country Club on Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Akron, Ohio. Photo by Akron Beacon Journal

Couples called Mickelson “a unique” individual and doesn’t expect PGA Tour players to try to copy his feat.

“I don’t see many 49- and 50-year-olds saying, ‘I’m going to win a PGA,”’ Couples said Wednesday. “Can Steve Stricker? Of course he can. Can Jim Furyk? Yeah. But I think as they get a little older, they’ll fall into [what’s] out here and love it.”

Jerry Kelly, 54, who won his first senior major last year in Akron, feels no pull to the PGA Tour, especially with a game built on accuracy, not length.

“I don’t have any kind of ego necessity to be out there at all,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I did well while I was out there. I would have loved to do more. But the things I want to do to make my career, win a major, things like that…

“That was incredible that Phil did that, but those majors are not in my cards. If they ever went back to Merion [in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania] again, I’d love to play in that one. But the distance, the way they’re setting up golf courses is not conducive to me. Really the last eight to 10 years was not conducive to me winning a major. That’s the only thing I could take away from playing consistently on the PGA Tour.

“Plus just hanging around the top 125, you wouldn’t get into the majors. My best way to get into the majors is playing here. I’m totally fine with where I’m at.”

A continued draw

The Senior Players offers a unique carrot that should continue to draw players to Akron. Since 2006, the winner has earned a spot in the Players Championship the following year. That event offers a $15 million purse, the largest on the PGA Tour, with Justin Thomas earning $2.7 million for his victory in March.

“I’d love to get back there and this is the way to do it,” Kelly said. “That course is right up my alley.”

Furyk talked to several players about when they knew it was time to choose the senior tour.

Hale Irwin initially split his tournaments 50-50, but that lasted less than a year. Players like Davis Love III and Vijay Singh, of whom Furyk said, “They weren’t wedge- and putter-type guys, they were guys that were built on power. … Davis always said, ‘If I putt well enough to win on the Champions Tour, I feel I putt well enough to win on the PGA Tour.’ He did at Greensboro.”

In 2015, at age 51, Love captured the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, firing a 6-under 64 on Sunday to become the third-oldest winner in PGA Tour history, a designation that still stands.

Stricker planned on playing more on the Champions tour in 2021, but then the U.S. Ryder Cup captain saw the competition postponed by COVID-19 until this year. That forced a change in his schedule because he wanted to stay close with potential members of his team.

But the senior tour’s stars are not concerned about the Phil factor convincing some in the class of 2021, 2022 and beyond to push back their commitment to the Champions tour.

“Guys are realizing that the competition on this tour is good enough to be able to say goodbye,” Kelly said.

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