2021 PGA Championship: Phil Mickelson vs. Brooks Koepka Could Come Down to Battle of Mind Games

2021 PGA Championship: Phil Mickelson vs. Brooks Koepka Could Come Down to Battle of Mind Games article feature image
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Sam Greenwood/Getty Images. Pictured: Brooks Koepka.

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The 103rd PGA Championship is going to come down to the final pairing of a couple of alpha dogs in Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka.

OK, so technically it’s still wide open. Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Streelman, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Branden Grace are also very much in the hunt with others lurking on the fringes.

But let’s face it: It’s tough to envision anyone winning besides the two big names at the top.

With Mickelson (+275, DraftKings) entering the final round at 7-under and Koepka (+150) one stroke back, this one has the potential of feeling like a head-to-head duel, even if that isn’t exactly the case.

Following their third-round performances, each player said all the right things about their Sunday pairing.

“I know everyone’s going to be gunning for me and Brooks,” Mickelson said. “I’ve enjoyed playing and competing with Brooks for a number of years now, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be paired with him tomorrow. I think we’ll bring out the best in each other.”

“It’ll be nice,” added Koepka. “At least I can see what Phil is doing and then I don’t have to turn back and look and see what he’s up to. Looking forward to it. Got a chance and everybody will be in front of me, so I know what I’ve got to do.”

It might not be so cordial on Sunday.

That’s not to suggest any animosity or even bitterness, but these guys haven’t won nine combined majors without knowing all the tricks of the trade.

Don’t expect gamesmanship so much as subtle influence. One of them may walk down the fairway a little quicker or slower to speed up his playing partner’s tempo. One could stand in a certain position on the tee box that would perhaps make the other subconsciously uncomfortable.

That might not be the biggest X-factor in determining the winner, but the pairing could play a major role.

Mickelson has spoken so often in recent months — and especially this week — about trying to stay more focused during his round. He admitted on Saturday evening that he lost focus after a brilliant start, missing a short birdie putt on the 11th hole before quick-swinging a few tee shots on 12 and 13.

Koepka told me earlier this week that “I wish I knew” why he tends to play his best golf in major championships, but if there’s a secret to his success, it might be the very thing Mickelson is chasing. The four-time major winner even tweeted after the second round about his “laser focus” in relation to short interview answers, but it was less joke than reality.

We can look at all the stats and metrics to try and determine which player might have the upper hand in this one. Mickelson’s driving ranked near the bottom of the field on Saturday, while his iron play was among the best. Koepka called Saturday’s round the worst putting performance of his career, even though the numbers showed he was above average against the field.

Driving it far and straight, firing darts with irons and rolling in critical putts will all be massively important, of course, but don’t forget the mental side of the game that they’ve both worked so much on crafting over the years.

There are few who might own an advantage in this category over Mickelson, but he might just have met his match in Koepka, who has figured out how to close these matters.

If I’m playing this one live before they tee off, I’ll take Brooks, even as the favorite who trails by a stroke. If the early deficit becomes two or three, I’ll like him even more at an undoubtedly bigger price.

It’s going to take laser focus to win this thing. Only one of ‘em has proven to have it for an entire round so far.

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