Night has fallen at Kiawah Island, and an almost reverent hush has descended over the dunes. Gone is the hoopla, the circus, the whoop and crash. The course now belongs to the bobcats, the sea turtles, the rolling ocean and the inexorable breezes.
Come tomorrow it will howl a hurricane -- inside the ropes that is.
All the buzz is Phil Mickelson, who leads the 103rd PGA Championship after 54 holes by one shot over Brooks Koepka. The guy with five majors is ahead of the guy with four, but Koepka has won all four – back-to-back U.S. Opens and back-to-back PGAs – since Phil won his last, the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.
That prompted one irreverent wag of a media scribe to quip: Brooks is one shot back; they’ll never catch him.
“If I strike it anything like I did the last three days, I'll have a chance,” Koepka said succinctly, and who can argue?
He’s decimated fairways at the Ocean Course, routinely hitting 385-yard drives, leaving mere wedges into holes on par 4s that mere mortals like you and I play with a drive, a 3-wood and a wedge. It’s other-worldly how far Koepka hits the ball under normal circumstances, but doing this just two short months removed from major knee surgery suggests the shortest recovery time ever recorded.
Meanwhile a plucky, but ultimately overpowered Phil Mickelson has hit drives close to 350 yards, but tomorrow he’s going to be hitting first from the fairway all day and playing longer clubs into the greens. Can he absorb 18 body blows form Koepka? Phil had it to 10 under and built a five-shot lead before carding bogey on No. 12 and a double bogey on No. 13. Koepka briefly tied Phil but missed a short putt on 18 to fall one shot back. Both fired 2-under 70 for the round.
“I felt I had a very clear picture on every shot, and I've been swinging the club well, and so I was executing. I just need to keep that picture a few more times,” Mickelson explained. “So even though it slipped a little bit today, and I didn't stay as focused and as sharp on a few swings, it's significantly better than it's been for a long time. So I'm making a lot of progress, and I'll continue to work on that and hopefully I'll be able to eliminate a couple of those loose swings tomorrow.”
Mickelson has been magical so far. He played his closing nine on Friday and the front nine on Saturday in a combined 63 shots. But those of us with a sense of history worry more about the two short putts he missed coming home; it’s gaffes like that which cost him U.S. Opens at Shinnecock in 2004 and Merion in 2013. You’ll recall poor Phil actually holed out an iron form the fairway for an eagle earlier in the round, prompting Sports Illustrated’s veteran writer Gary Van Sickle to turn into Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh and lament, “You know this is only going to make it more tragic in the end.” To our horror, he was right (taking nothing away from Justin Rose).
Speaking of Merion, that was one of only three occasions where Mickelson either held or shared the 54-hole lead in a major. He won the 2005 PGA Championship wire-to-wire (with ties) and the 2010 Masters after sleeping on the lead on Saturday night. If Mickelson wins tomorrow, he will become the oldest major golf champion in history, just 26 days shy of his 51st birthday. The current record is held by Julius Boros, age 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley in Texas.
Legend has it, Texas was so hot that week, the Astrodome melted into a Pizza Hut.
There is an X Factor: South African Louis Oosthuizen. Some call him Shrek, but I still reserve that moniker for Stew Cink and that Jolly Rancher green atrocity of a shirt he won the 2009 Open Championship in. Cink looked like Shrek. Louis, on the other hand, looks like he’s trying to find his friend's backyard party and took a wrong turn into a golf tournament. His aw-shucks attitude stands in stark contrast to the other actors in this Shakespearean-in-magnitude drama. Brooks defines himself by how much weight he can lift, and then how many trophies he can add. Phil is focus-focus-focus.
But there’s Louis, good old mercurial Louis on the scorecard. What’s a typical line score for him? Seven birdies, five bogeys, a double and an eagle? His bumper sticker must read “Pars are for chumps.” Oosthuizen is two shots back of Phil, but more disconcerting is the one shot back of Brooks. What’s encouraging is that even fighting his swing and his putting stroke, Louis kept a 72 from being much worse. He survived what he hopes will be his only bad ball striking day.
“I could sense early on that I wasn't on. I felt a move in my driver that I didn't like, and from there it wasn't good,” he admitted candidly. “So I was just sort of fighting to stay in it, and you know, at the end there, started judging the greens wrong and everything just fell apart. All in all, two behind going into Sunday, I've got to take a lot of positives out of that with the way I was playing today.”
Oosthuizen burst on to the world golf scene in Tiger-esque fashion, winning the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews' Old Course in a seven-shot runaway.
He then proceeded to finish second in every major since then. Some of them in heartbreaking fashion. Oosty, you’ll recall, holed out a fairway wood at the second hole of Augusta National on Sunday in 2012 for an albatross before losing in a playoff to Bubba Watson. I guess he was channeling his inner Mickelson.
That might crush the soul of lesser men, but the phlegmatic South African just laughed it off. On the back of another major runner-up -- collecting them all -- he tweeted a video of himself singing, “I will riiiiiiiiiiiise up….I will riiiiiiiiiiise up.”
Louis has a puncher’s chance. He can go really low. He gets ridiculously streaky, like when he coated the back nine of Chambers Bay in South African pelepele sauce at the 2015 U.S. Open, barbecued it on the grill (called a Braai in South Africa) and ate it for dinner. His 29 tied a major championship record; Jordan Spieth edged him by just a single. And he plays extremely well in the wind, as does Phil. If they do have one edge over Brooks – at present -- they both play better in high winds.
Still, with big, bad Brooks raining down thunderbolts, the big question is: Will Louis hit the chamber with the bullet in it, like has happened too often lately?
As the wind goes, so goes Kiawah, or as designer Pete Dye succinctly put it, “Everything depends on the wind, but the wind’s the one thing you cant depend on.”
Who is best in high winds? I’ll take Phil. He won at Muirfield, and it took a 63 by Henrik Stenson on Sunday at Troon in 2016 to rob him of a second claret jug. This is an Open Championship in May. But if the winds are mild, Koepka just has too much firepower. He’ll post 9 under at least, perhaps even 10 if the predicted changing of the wind doesn’t materialize.
Are there any lurkers with an outside chance? Bryson DeChambeau (2 under for the tournament) can’t be ruled out because if he posts a low score and the wind changes or blusters, he could pip everyone at the post. Same goes for Branden Grace, who is just four shots back at 3 under.
The first pale rays of sunlight have warmed the sky. The Neptunian roil of the sea is still the only sound. Kiawah stands sentinel, in lonely eminence. If nothing else, we will, once again see time capsule drama, and a worthy champion. But a hurricane is coming.