A top-three finish to conclude his season on the PGA Tour Champions will no doubt please Darren Clarke as he eyes up bigger and better things on the seniors circuit in 2022.
The former Open champion fired a spectacular seven-under 64 in his final round at the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship saw the Northern Irishman climb into a share of third on the final leaderboard at Phoenix Country Club.
At 17-under, a score shared by David Toms, Clarke finished just two shots back of winner Phil Mickelson, who became only the second player in history to claim his fourth PGA Tour Champions victory in his first six starts by holding off the challenge of Steven Alker by one shot in Arizona.
Not only that but there was also drama in the overall Charles Schwab race as Bernhard Langer, despite struggling all week with back problems, held on to lift the order of merit title after finishing 17th while closest rival Jim Furyk failed to secure the top-three finish he required.
Langer carded a two-under 69 to reach 12-under, just inside the top-20, leaving overnight leader Furyk safe in the knowledge that if he closed out his one-shot advantage then he would lift both trophies, but he would stumble to a level-par 71 and, at 16-under, was two shots off the required mark.
It has been a good season – a two-year wraparound campaign due to the Covid-19 pandemic – for Clarke, who will finish sixth in the Charles Schwab Cup standings after this result and will know he has more in the tank going into next season.
The 53-year-old concluded his year with one of his best rounds of the year, too, bouncing back from a bogey on his opening hole with eight birdies – split evenly on his front and back nines – to jump up the leaderboard.
On another day it might have been enough for a comeback win, but Mickelson proved just too good yet again as the six-time Major champion roared through the field with a six-under 65 to join Jack Nicklaus as the only two players to win four PGA Tour Champions events in just six starts.
The 51-year-old had a strong finish to get him over the line, too, picking up three birdies in his final four holes to post the clubhouse lead at 19-under and it was then a case of waiting to see if that mark would be bettered.
In the end it wouldn’t be, New Zealand’s Alker – who was a qualifier on Tour as recently as August – coming closest but his back-to-back birdies to sign for a 67 wouldn’t be enough, while overnight leader Furyk fell away and wouldn’t be in contention down the stretch, leaving Lefty to revel in the spoils once more.
“It’s been fun for me to play out here and see so many guys that I grew up and spent decades with, life-long friends. Then to play well and have some success is very meaningful,” beamed Mickelson.
“I’m hoping to use the opportunity to play and compete here as a way to keep my game sharp and have a few special moments on the regular Tour like I had this year in May.
“If I could have a couple more of those, that’s really what motivates me to work hard, to get in the gym in the offseason, put in the time and the effort to have those special moments. I would love to have a couple more.”
Not only did overnight leader Furyk’s collapse on Sunday cost him the weekly title, it also saw him surrender his grip on the Charles Schwab Cup title, which went to Langer in a dramatic finish.
The German, who was unable to pick the ball out of the hole such was his back pain, knew that a top-eight finish would win him the order of merit crown regardless of Furyk’s finish, but could only manage three birdies, an eagle and three bogeys in a two-under 69 to leave him 12-under and in a share of 17th.
That meant he had to sit back and see if his rival could get the job done, but Furyk faltered down the stretch, two bogeys at the 10th and 13th dropping him four shots off Mickelson at 15-under and leaving him needing to play his final two holes in three-under to move into the top-three.
A birdie at the 17th set up a grandstand finish, but the former US Open champion took that too literally at the par-five 18th, pulling his second shot into the grandstand by the green. After dropping in mulch and failing to hole his chip shot for the eagle required, the title was Langer’s.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” said a stunned Langer, who played in all 39 events in the two-year season.
“What a week, starting off with some back issues for me where I almost withdrew and then it got a little bit better, and then Jim Furyk leading the tournament pretty much all week long, coming down to the very last shot literally of the tournament where he had a chance to eagle the last to win the Schwab Cup. Unfortunately didn’t hit his best 3-wood in there, but what a great champion and gentleman Jim Furyk is. He’ll have many more chances to lift this trophy.
“I’m just overwhelmed, you know, at 64 to win this thing six times. It will probably be my last one, I’m almost sure of that, but it’s very, very special.”