News & Opinion

Does Phil Mickelson rate among top 10 all-time? It’s complicated

Phil Mickelson wins 2021 PGA Championship
As a major-championship winner at age 50, Phil Mickelson sets a new standard in golf.

With his victory at recent PGA Championship, Mickelson elevates himself to another level in golf, and it just might be the top one

So, who was that nincompoop who recently suggested that the Players replace the PGA as the fourth major? (“From the Morning Read inbox,” March 24). My (very) bad.

I was just wrong. The 2021 PGA Championship was a tremendously compelling major, with more storylines than I can remember.  At the top of the list: Winner Phil Mickelson, one month shy of age 51, and his place in history, apart from being the oldest major winner.

What does the victory do for Mickelson’s place in history? In terms of raw numbers, he has left the logjam of five-time major champions and joined Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino at six, with only 11 players ahead at seven or more. Heady company. Is Mickelson, as has been popularly discussed, among the top 10 all-time golfers? That’s a tough one, and however you come out on it, it’s hardly a silly discussion.

The pros: Beyond his six major titles, Mickelson has compiled an enviable majors record: 11 second-place finishes (including a record six in the U.S. Open, which is all that stands between him and the career Grand Slam and very likely unquestionable status among the top 10 all-time) and seven thirds among 28 top-5 results. In 113 starts in major championships, Mickelson owns 39 top-10s. Wow. And that goes along with 45 PGA Tour victories, which ties for eighth all-time.

(For perspective, Jack Nicklaus had 37 top-2s in majors, including his record 18 titles.)

And on top of the stats: Mickelson long has captured the golfing public’s imagination with his unsurpassed genius of a short game, his Palmer-esque swashbuckling approach to tournaments, his heartbreaking U.S. Open flame-outs by going for broke and his long, flowing old-school swing. Even with psoriatic arthritis, Mickelson never has been injured, a tribute likely to that old-school swing in which everything turns back and through in sync, as opposed to a violent posting up against a firm left leg and massive resistance between hip and shoulder turn. Something to think about. 

In certain important respects, Mickelson reminds one of Joe Namath, whose stats did not warrant Pro Football Hall of Fame status but whose impact on the game and sporting scene transcended numbers.

The cons: Mickelson never has ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, never won a Vardon Trophy for low scoring average, never led the Tour in earnings and never was regarded as the best player of his era (unlike, say, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and, of course, Woods).

I know Gary Player never was regarded as the best of his era (although one year he was the leading money winner), but with nine major championship won mostly during the era of Nicklaus and Palmer, any top 10-list would be defective without him.

In certain respects, Mickelson’s career resembles that of Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher: tremendous career but never “The Guy.” Sutton pitched for 23 years and won 324 games but was a 20-game winner only once and an all-star only four times.  

Then there is the argument that “if only Tiger had not been around …” It rings hollow based on the facts. Hogan, Snead and Nelson were born within seven months of one another, and each was the best in the world at various times.

The argument might hold some water if Mickelson had racked up a slew of major-championship runners-up behind Woods, but he only had one, at the 2002 U.S. Open. No one can claim that Tiger Woods stood in the way of Phil Mickelson winning more majors.

And then this fun fact: only 25 percent of Mickelson’s major top-3s are victories, compared with 67 percent for Woods and 56 percent for Nicklaus. And Mickelson’s 25-percent winning rate when he was in the hunt at a major championship is the lowest in history for golfers who have won at least five majors.

My conclusion? It’s a wonderful discussion. Mickelson was, of course well-deserving of World Golf Hall of Fame induction, even before his PGA victory at Kiawah Island. But it’s difficult looking through the prism of history to place him in the top 10 all-time.

Finally, I know that Woods and Mickelson have developed a warm friendship and mutual admiration of late. But can you imagine anything that would keep Woods off his couch and in the rehab room more enthusiastically than seeing Mickelson become the oldest major winner and the center of all golf attention, including whether he is now among the top 10 all-time? Mickelson likely has inspired more than just old duffers with his historic PGA triumph, even if, as yet, he might not have cracked history on top of being the oldest major winner.

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