With five majors to his name, he has long since shoved that dubious title aside, and should he win the FedEx Cup this year, he will bolster his ever-growing legacy as one of the best to have ever played the game.
The FedEx Cup may not hold the grandeur and history of a major, but with its $10 million grand prize, golf’s postseason possesses a similar sense of intensity and competitiveness. A major lasts for one week while the FedExCup represents an entire season of solid performance.
In order to qualify, a player needs to accumulate a certain number of points throughout the year. In order to win, he must then wade through a series of genuinely difficult courses against a continuous group of world-class players.
Should Phil win this year’s FedEx Cup, he will pin not just another badge on his already glowing lapel but elevate himself into a laudatory group all its own. If he does so, he will do it while fighting against age and arthritis. He will beat the world’s best player in Tiger Woods, the No. 2-ranked player and last week’s winner Adam Scott, rising young pros like less than half his age like Jordan Spieth and a number of top-10 players.
At 43, when most players are eyeing the Senior Tour, Phil is having one of his best years ever, and doing so in glorious fashion. He ranks third in the world rankings and has won twice on the Tour, with two second-place and two third-place finishes, including his record-setting sixth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open.
Most notably, he won his first British Open, surging past the leaders by shooting a 66 on Sunday. He did so after winning the Scottish Open the week before. His performance was classic Phil—theatrical, skillful and aggressive. Phil is your typical streaky shooter: When he is on a roll, watch out.
It looked like he might repeat his dramatic performance last week at The Barclays. After a poor showing at the PGA at Oak Hill, where he finished in a tie for 72nd, Lefty once again turned Sunday into his own personal showtime by soaring up the leaderboard with a final-round 65, just two back of the leader.
He now heads to TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship, a course where he won in 2007 and finished in a tie for fourth last year.
Sitting comfortably in third place in the FedEx Cup standings, he has positioned himself for a run at the title. What’s more, should he actually win the FedEx Cup, he may become the front-runner for Player of the Year, a tight competition that includes Tiger Woods and Adam Scott.
The ultimate value of the FedEx Cup has yet to be determined. This marks only its sixth year in existence, and there are many critics who decry its point system. It is a made-up playoffs created to extend the golf season and increase television viewership. But the amount of money is so vast—as much as $67 million in total purses—that it attracts the best players in the world.
Phil is already a member of golf’s Hall of Fame. He has won five majors (three Masters, one PGA Championship and one British Open), joining Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson, and he has done so all after the age of 33. In all, he has 42 wins, ranking him ninth all time and just three back of Walter Hagen. He is by far the best left-handed player to have ever teed up a ball.
He has won five majors in 38 attempts since 2004, while Woods has won six in 35 attempts. Woods, as we all know, has won none since turning 33.
Would winning the FedEx Cup elevate him even higher on the list of greats? Better than Hagen, Billy Casper and Nelson, all of whom lead him in total wins? Those guys didn't play in such events, but if you were making an all-star team of golf's greatest, you just might place Lefty ahead of them.
Phil’s six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open represent both greatness and frustration. Of course, Jack Nicklaus finished second 19 times in majors, and you know how much we think of him. For Phil, it may seem like a cross to bear. The last thing he wants is to be known as Mr. No. 2. Yet when viewed among his other accomplishments, it is another sign of his monstrous ability.
You cannot talk about Lefty’s legacy without discussing his gambling approach to the game. If style points meant anything, Phil would undoubtedly be everyone’s No. 1. Some people may cringe at his aggressiveness. He’s the go-for-it kid, always ready to take out a driver when all he may need is a long iron shot down the fairway. He did so most infamously at Winged Foot in 2006 when he gave away the U.S. Open to Geoff Ogilvy.
It was his chance at three consecutive majors, and if he was going to match Woods, Nicklaus and Ben Hogan as the only ones to have accomplished the feat, he would do it his way.
Of course, it is that aggressiveness—no, call it creativity, like a great pool player seeing an angle to a shot that no one else does—that makes Lefty so great and so watchable. In this way, he is the anti-golfer. He may be conservative politically, but he is the most radical guy on the course. Who else has so much panache? Who else treats his wedge (he carried five in his bag when he won the British Open) as if it was a paint brush?
And if he becomes known for one shot, it is the one out of the woods, around the corner, over the stream and onto the green to ensure a win at the 2010 Masters. He did so amidst the public sympathy for his wife Lori, who was battling breast cancer. He did it on golf’s biggest stage, in the most dramatic fashion possible. Come on! Who does that?
Only a fearless poker player who he is perennially unafraid of calling a bluff.
No question, the FedEx Cup is not the Masters, but to Phil it is another shot at winning, and winning is ultimately what Lefty’s legacy is is all about.