Phil Mickelson never expected to win a British Open in his career. Even after he secured the Claret Jug on Sunday with a five-under 66 that he called "probably the best round of my career," Mickelson seemed surprised, in a way, at his own excellence. During the championship ceremony, he said:
This is a win that I never knew in my career if I'd be equipped, if I would have the shots, if I would have the opportunity to win a tournament here. And to do it, to play some of the best golf and probably the best round of my career, and break through and capture this claret jug, is probably the most fulfilling moment of my career because it was something I wasn't sure I'd be able to ever do.
Where does the British Open championship put Mickelson on the list of all-time greats? Suddenly, he's a lot closer to the top.
Two days ago, Mickelson was still already one of the greatest golfers of his era, sitting just inside the second cut—if you will—of the best players of all time. Phil had won four major titles and had collected a career's worth of second-place finishes, including six at the U.S. Open, a major he has yet to win.
When Mickelson finished second in the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion after holding the 54-hole lead, he told reporters that all he felt was "heartbreak." No one, not even Mickelson, thought his major championship redemption would have come so soon.
If life were a movie script, Phil's next major would have come at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst—the tournament he's never been able to win at the course that began his string of runner-up finishes and endeared him to so many golf fans around the world.
After the disappointment at Merion, Pinehurst felt like the next one for Phil. It still does, making the victory at Muirfield all that much more impressive.
A Decade of Phil
Go back 10 years, to 2003. Phil Mickelson was still the best player never to win a major. He had finished third in the Masters three straight years and had five top-10 finishes each at the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, where he had finished second twice in four years. He had never, in his career, finished in the top 10 in the British Open.
Try to tell yourself in 2003 that in 10 years Phil Mickelson will win five majors, including three of the four legs of a career grand slam and, still, hasn't won the U.S. Open. Tell yourself that a week ago. It's inexplicable.
"If six seconds counted as a win, I'd have all of them," Mickelson joked with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after his final round at Muirfield. But he doesn't have all of them. Not yet.
Still, he's one of just 15 golfers in history to win three of the four major championships—16, if you include Bobby Jones. Just five players have ever won the career grand slam, giving Phil an incredible chance to join the elite list of the game's greatest players if he can ever capture that elusive U.S. Open crown. (Note: The careers of Walter Hagen and Jones mostly pre-dated the Masters.)
Six seconds do not count as a win, but they have to count for something.
Comparing Phil to the Best in History
Jack Nicklaus, widely recognized as the greatest player in the history of the game, won 18 majors in his career and was runner-up 19 times, collecting an incomprehensible 46 top-three finishes in his career.
Tiger Woods—the best of his generation and just behind Nicklaus on the list of all-time greats—has won 14 major championships, placing second in another six while collecting a total of 24 top-three finishes.
Mickelson is not in that company, but winning the British has moved him much higher up the list of all-time greats. Mickelson now has five majors, placing second in eight others, while finishing in the top three 20 times. And by the way he's playing, Phil is a long way from done.
(Nicklaus won his last major in 1986 at age 46, having last won a major six years earlier. Nicklaus had just two top-10 finishes in the previous 13 majors. Mickelson, at age 43, is showing no signs of slowing down, is playing the best golf of his career and has finished in the top three in four of the last nine majors.)
If Mickelson can win a U.S. Open in his career, everything changes.
Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones are in a different class than the rest of the golf world. Mickelson could leapfrog an amazing list of players if he can ever manage to win the one tournament he has been closer than anyone in history to winning. A U.S. Open will put him in that class.
The Five- and Six-Major Winners
There are a few glaring names missing from that Rushmore-esque list of golf immortals. Let's work backwards to get to them as we compare Phil to some of the greats with suddenly similar major championship resumes.
With five majors, Phil is tied with the likes of Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros, one trophy behind Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino. Of those four names, only Nelson and Trevino won three of the four major championships, which fosters the debate of whether winning the same major multiple times is harder than winning more of the different major tournaments.
With the grand slam the hardest feat to accomplish in golf, it stands to reason that winning different majors is more highly regarded than winning the same one again and again. Mickelson winning the British Open is far more historically impressive than him taking home another Masters. But is one British better than two Masters on his resume? More to the point, is one British more important than two Masters for someone like Faldo?
Yes, probably. Winning the Claret Jug has likely put Mickelson ahead of Faldo, despite winning one fewer major. By adding the Claret Jug to his trophy case, especially given his bridesmaid-like record at the U.S. Open, it's not difficult to consider Mickelson ahead of Faldo, who had fewer career victories and nearly half as many top-three finishes in majors.
By comparison, it seems patently ridiculous to consider Mickelson in the same conversation as Ballesteros, but winning the British does put him in that class as well.
Given that Seve never finished better than third in the U.S. Open or PGA Championship in 31 combined chances in his career, that debate is certainly a conversation worth having. Ballesteros, for what it's worth, won 91 times in his career, but a third of those were off-tour events. His PGA and European Tour record is rather comparable to Mickelson's, giving Phil the career nod over Seve as well.
Nelson, however, is a bit of an unfair comparison to any modern-era player.
Nelson played in The Open Championship just twice in his career (1937 and 1955), finishing fifth in 1937. For the prime of his career, there was no British Open (1940-1945) because of the world war. In four of those years, there was also no U.S. Open, and in three there was no Masters. In 1943, there were no majors at all.
Nelson, like Hogan, played in an era when the PGA Championship was held as a match-play event. It's fascinating to wonder how Mickelson would have done in a major with that structure. Mickelson has a poor record in the match play events and a career losing record in singles at the Ryder Cup.
Nelson won the match play-formatted PGA Championship twice and made it to at least the semifinals in six of the nine tournaments he entered.
Independent of the missed opportunities because of the war, Nelson has to be considered ahead of Mickelson on the totem pole of golf's greats.
Trevino has six majors, winning all but the Masters in his career. Trevino had 13 fewer PGA Tour victories than Mickelson currently has, and his struggles at Augusta National have been incredibly well-documented, as he never finished better than 10th in his otherwise illustrious career. Outside of his six major titles, however, Trevino had just three top-three finishes in his career at the majors.
It would be hard at this point in Phil's career to not consider him above Trevino. (Note: This is officially freaking me out too.)
Phil vs. Slammin' Sammy
The player whose record may most resemble Mickelson's is Sam Snead. Slammin' Sammy won seven majors in his career but never won the U.S. Open, finishing second four times.
Snead played in the same era as Nelson and Hogan, so his chances to win more majors than he did were limited by years in which some majors weren't held. Snead won three PGA Championships, finishing in the top three of the match-play event another five times.
Snead also won three Masters, like Mickelson, and had eight top-three finishes at Augusta, as Mickelson has done so far in his career. The parallels are striking.
Right now, with seven majors to Phil's five and a nearly identical record at Augusta and the U.S. Open, the nod would have to go to Snead, especially considering those years with fewer opportunities. Still, it's amazing to even consider this conversation.
It's amazing what winning the British has done for Phil's legacy.
Phil vs. Arnie and Tom
Let's finish with the two players everyone needs to be thinking about at this point in Phil's career. Is he a better all-time player than Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson?
In short, no. Not yet. That said, it's not that crazy to suggest he might be.
First, let's look at the comparison between Mickelson and Watson. Watson had 39 career PGA Tour wins. Mickelson already has 42. Watson won eight majors in his career—nearly winning his ninth in the 2009 Open Championship at age 59—which is three more than Mickelson, an enormously significant difference when comparing career achievements.
Watson has eight second-place finishes in majors and 18 top-three finishes to Phil's 20. Watson had 46 top-10 finishes in his major championship career to 35 for Phil. Granted, Watson does have a few years on Mickelson. Watson had 25 top-five finishes in the four majors, while Mickelson has 24.
Watson's career is rightfully more revered than Mickelson's, but that would surely change if Phil continues playing the way he is right now.
But what about Arnie?
Before we get too far into this, let's make it clear that Mickelson is not above Arnold Palmer on the list of golf's all-time greats. But he is way closer than any golf fan may be willing to admit.
Palmer is a living legend, but his career record isn't really that much greater than Mickelson's, even with two more major championships.
Palmer won seven majors in his career, winning the Masters four times, The Open Championship twice and the U.S. Open once. Palmer never won a PGA Championship in his career, finishing in a tie for second three times.
In the four majors, Palmer finished second 10 times in his career, placing third twice for 19 top-three finishes. Again, Mickelson already has 20. Palmer and Mickelson both left victories out on the course, as both players could, and maybe should, have double-digit majors in their careers.
Given Palmer's importance in popularizing the game in the television era, he's more aptly compared to someone like Woods than Mickelson. There may not have been a cooler player in the game's history than Palmer, but having walked rounds in a major with Mickelson, it's hard to imagine Palmer being any more popular than Phil is with the fans.
It seems blasphemous to consider Mickelson at the same level in golf's history as the great Palmer, but a few more wins will get him there.
A U.S. Open victory, and Mickelson may surpass him.
Golf is a sport with a history that spans three centuries, and as such, it makes little sense to compare the modern player to the likes of Old or Young Tom Morris, five-time major winners James Braid and John Henry Taylor or seven-time major champion Harry Vardon. Even comparing Hagen or Jones to Woods or Mickelson is an effort in incomparable futility. That, in part, is what makes the game so remarkable.
While it's difficult to universally compare the greats of different eras, Mickelson is now officially part of the conversation of all-time greats. With three different major titles and six second-place finishes in the fourth, Mickelson has reached a level of historical greatness as perhaps one of the 10 best players of all time, and if not, he's just on the fringe.
After winning The Open Championship, the U.S. Open has become even more important for Mickelson's legacy. Pinehurst is 11 months away, but with the way he is playing, Phil surely wishes it started today.