This was a game changer.
Yes, Phil Mickelson had won majors. Yes, Mickleson was a sure-fire, no-doubt-about-it mortal lock for the golf Hall of Fame. Yes, he was unquestionably the second best in an era of unprecedented depth behind Tiger Woods.
Still, yesterday’s come-from-behind victory in The Open Championship significantly shifts the goalposts in terms of how we view Mickelson and his place in the pantheon of golf’s greats.
For one, if you look at golf’s all-time elite players such as Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, one common denominator is a victory at The Open Championship. There are 13 players with more major victories than Mickelson. Each one of them has won The Open.
Simply put, any discussion of a player’s place amongst the all-time greats is not a discussion without them earning a win in The Open Championship.
Yes, yesterday’s victory would not have been as prominent, in my opinion, had it been any of the other three majors. Sure, it would have been another major victory, but having his name on the Claret Jug diversifies Lefty’s resume in a way that a victory in the other three majors could not have.
Of course, Mickelson already has three victories at The Masters and has one PGA Championship. While a U.S. Open victory ironically remains elusive in spite of six second-place finishes, the three American based championships require a different style of play than the one across the pond, where a greater premium is placed on negotiating variable weather conditions, something we saw this week.
With the wind blowing like usual and Muirfield uncharacteristically dry, players were forced to keep the ball low, and run it up to pins. This is not something anyone would have considered one of Mickelson’s strengths prior to, well, yesterday afternoon.
Another thing that is important to note is that Mickelson has entered the stage of his career where picking up extra majors validates those many near-misses we associate with him. Of course, a lot of the narrative with Mickelson has been focused on the “what could have been.” For example, we don’t associate Greg Norman with winning two majors, we associate Norman with the many near-misses he had.
But with five majors, it is difficult to still do that with Mickelson. There are now only 13 players with more. Some them, like Nick Faldo for example, I would argue do not boast nearly as good a resume as Mickleson does. While Faldo has six major victories and 40 professional wins, he won only The Open and The Masters. Mickelson has 51 professional wins.
While we, as a society, tend to simply measure winning and losing, Mickelson boasts 20 top-3 finishes in major championships, whereas Faldo only has 12. Also, if you were to look only at top-3 finishes, Mickelson has 20. The benchmark of this era is Tiger Woods, and he has 24.
If anything, the conversation will now become, “in addition to his five majors, Mickelson has finished second eight times.”
In other words, Mickelson entered a different stratosphere yesterday; a stratosphere, where his regular contention in majors is now validated by numerous wins, and wins at different majors.
No, he is not up there with Nicklaus, Woods, Hagen, etc. He’s probably not even in the Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead category either.
But Mickelson undoubtedly an all-time great. If yesterday was any indication, more could be yet to come.