Phil Mickelson has won 40 PGA Tour events, four major championships, competed on nine Presidents Cup and nine Ryder Cup teams.
Marvelous accomplishments all, even though his Ryder Cup of 14-18-6 is certainly not of the caliber one might expect from an elite player.
But let’s play a little “what if” game.
What if Mickelson were not to win another major and finish his career with three Masters titles and a PGA Championship? What would his legacy be if that were to happen?
Let’s begin by saying such a thing is not necessarily out of the realm of possibility. Lefty is 42 years old, has played in 465 PGA Tour events and many other events around the world. Add to that his diagnosis in 2010 of psoriatic arthritis, there’s certainly no guarantee as to how long he’ll be able to compete at this elite level.
Tiger Woods’ legacy, on and off the course, is unparalleled. Mickelson is the antithesis of Woods.
Woods is black, Mickelson white. Woods is right-handed, Mickelson left-handed. Woods grew up with the sole purpose of being the best golfer ever and to break Jack Nicklaus’ major victories record. Mickelson has never shown the extreme level of determination and sacrifice needed to achieve that dominance and keep it. He had a chance to do so in August of 2010 but didn’t play well enough in the final round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational to take the top spot.
Mickelson was among Woods’ closest rivals for years, but has proven over the course of his career that family was more important than being No. 1 and structured his life accordingly.
His personality is one of the most interesting on the PGA Tour. An intelligent man, sometimes he lets all of that intelligence get in the way of clear thinking. Whether the results were good or not, Mickelson was not afraid to put two drivers in his bag at the Masters as he did in 2011. He also chose to play with five wedges in his bag on any number of occasions.
That all plays into his aggressive, gambling approach to the game: The go-for-broke attitude reminiscent of Arnold Palmer that sometimes cost him big-time.
The 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot might be the best example of that attitude, with a hint of stubbornness. Throughout the final round, Mickelson’s driver was off, making fairways only a dream. But he stayed in contention and needed only to make par on the 72nd hole to win the title that was thought too difficult for him to nab. Instead of hitting a 3-wood safely into the fairway, he didn’t hesitate in pulling out the driver and promptly sliced it off the roof of a corporate hospitality tent well off the fairway.
He eventually double-bogeyed the hole after trying to hit a heroic shot to the green, prompting him to say in the post-round press conference, “I’m such an idiot.”
Mickelson’s also the guy who slashed a 6-iron from the pine straw between a pair of trees on the 13th hole at Augusta, leading to a birdie that propelled him to a green jacket in 2010.
Mickelson’s four major titles already have him inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame (Class of 2012). The critical analysis of historians down the road will question his greatness because of the fact that he either tied or finished alone in second in seven other majors.
I don’t have those same questions. This is a guy who, yes, was a bit too creative, too much of a gambler and too analytical for his own good at times.
But the bust that sits in the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., means that Mickelson is one of the game’s greats. He brought a touch of unworldly class to the short game, executing shots that most players on the PGA Tour wouldn’t even think about trying. His game has the added dimension of that sky-high flop shot, the 64-degree wedge and a pair of hands worth millions.
Mickelson had the sometimes irritating ability to smile and tell us how well he had played, even though he just walked off the course having suffered a crushing defeat. It would have been nice to see him get mad just once and tell us just how steamed he was!
But that’s not how the man from SoCal rolls. He’s made nearly $68 million in his career but any discussion about his golf legacy can’t be held without talking Mickelson off the field. The man showed tremendous courage and strength in dealing with breast cancer diagnoses for his wife and mother. He has given endlessly of his time and resources to Birdies for the Brave as well to another of his keen interests: children and education.
If Phil Mickelson doesn’t win another major, he’d be disappointed for sure. Great athletes think they can win until the day arrives that it’s just not physically possible. His legions of fans would be disappointed as well.
But you know what? When his playing days are done, that big smile will be shining because the big left-hander played out his career the way he wanted.