This year was one of the wildest, most dramatic, and controversial years in golf. And if you're looking for that one moment, the one shot and split second where we hit peak drama, it may have happened in Scottsdale back in the first month of the season.
Sure, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is not a major and there were more important and pressurized rounds, holes, and shots made over the past year. But Phil Mickelson's flirtation with breaking 60 on a Thursday in January, a threat that seems to be more and more common each season, probably provided the certain moment where those watching jumped off their couch, or threw their hands up in the air, or screamed out at the TV.
Mickelson, who I wrote was the game's most entertaining player back in July when he was crowned champion golfer of the year, made a run at golf's magic number in the most Mickelsonian of ways. It was a dazzling round at a place he can justifiably claim as a home course. It was a march that fluctuated between certainty and uncertainty, crescendoed and dipped, and then finally the cruel, but typical, Phil denouement on the second-to-last stroke of the afternoon.
After carding red numbers on 10 of his first 13 holes at TPC Scottsdale, the Hall-of-Famer needed just two birdies (with no bogeys) over his final five holes and he'd become only the sixth player ever to break 60 on the PGA Tour. Mickelson cooled down in that last stretch, but still avoided bogey and had one last chance with a relatively minor breaker uphill from 25 feet on his final hole (No. 9). He put it right on the cup, but the ball danced around the entire hole before hopping out in the classic Phil switch:
In the history of golf, no run at 59 has come closer. It was likely the most dramatic split-second of the season, from this generation's most dramatic player.
The sudden turn from "got it got it got it" to gutted was best captured by Mickelson's longtime bagman, Jim Mackay, who collapsed to the ground, his facing crawling into his hands on the turf. Even his fellow caddies, and playing parters Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler were incredulous (GIF via Adam Sarson):
The "59 watch" was officially on after Mickelson went off TPC Scottsdale's back nine and broke 30 for the eighth time in his career (he'd do it again in September at the Deutsche Bank Championship). Phil missed an eagle putt at the PGA's Grand Slam of Golf back in 2004 that would have posted a 58, instead settling for a tap-in 59. But that was not an official PGA Tour event -- this would have added his name to one of the game's most exclusive clubs and have been a significant addition to his career resume.
The opening round in Arizona pretty much came out of nowhere. Phil, who has historically done well in the first quarter of the season, had been sluggish up to that point. He had just failed to break 70 in four rounds at Torrey Pines, the layout in his backyard in San Diego. But now he was trying to break 60 all of a sudden. From the start, he was all over the pin with his renowned short game, nearly holing out for eagle on his first hole (No. 10) and coming within a foot of an ace on the 12th.
Mickelson was aware of the potentially historic round throughout his final nine holes, and he was clearly grinding for another career achievement. As he narrated his own highlights afterwards, he kept interrupting his own progression, asking to see a replay of the final putt. "I was thinking 59 back on 10," he told Mark Rolfing. "When I hit that front 9, I was thinking it the whole time -- are you going to show that last hole? I'd really like to see that one more time."
It wasn't nearly the "heartbreak" he would use to repeatedly describe the loss at Merion months later, but Phil did say he was "crushed" and "mortified" by the harsh result at the last. In the press tent, he attempted to describe the difference that one last lip-out meant:
"There's a big difference between 60 and 59. Not that big between 60 and 61, really isn't. But there's a big barrier, a Berlin Wall barrier between 59 and 60."
What he ended with was his second career round of 60 at this venue, a spot with the rowdiest crowds on Tour. Mickelson whipped those crowds into a frenzy on every hole, and the ridiculous 10 birdies in 13 holes forced Golf Channel to come on the air hours earlier than planned and put together an unscheduled broadcast on the fly.
After Phil's 12th hole, Brandel Chamblee came back in off the course convinced he was going to finish not with a 59, but the first ever 58. The 59 did seem like a lock. And then we realized it was Mickelson, so there had to be a little bit more to it all. The stall out quelled the crowds, which he then brought back on that last green:
"Six feet out, it was right in the middle. Two feet out, it was right in the middle. Eight inches out, it was right in the middle. And somehow it dove off at the end. For it to lip out that way and lip out uphill slightly and to come back a little bit at me at that pace and speed, it's very tough to do."
It's rare to have the first round of a regular PGA Tour stop in early winter grab hold of the sports universe on a Thursday afternoon, but this was the perfect confluence of circumstances. We had a historic player on a historic pace with a sudden and legendary turn at the end. There were more important moments this year, but those factors make Phil's near-miss at breaking 60 firmly inside our top 25 countdown.