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HOW DOES MICKELSON STACK UP?

FARMINGDALE, NY. Phil Mickelson has been on the professional golf scene for over 20 years. In that time “Lefty” has garnered a huge fan base globally and still continues to thrill — his epic duel this past July with Henrik Stenson at The Open at Troon showed he’s still got some gas in the tank.

Phil Nickelson

Phil Nickelson

But Phil’s wherewithal to command the highest of stages is deep in the back nine now. With the ’16 golf season reaching its high point with the start of the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs this week at The Barclays at Bethpage Black and The Ryder Cup Matches looming in just a few weeks I thought it would be interesting to see where Phil stacks up all-time against the greatest of golfers who have ever played.

Mickelson has won five majors to date — three Masters, a PGA and his most noted win — the ’13 Open Championship at Muirfield. His first major win did not come until he was 33. He was only too happy to ditch the dubious tagline — “best player never to win a major.”

Clearly, Mickelson does not have record to be included in golf’s first five all-time listing. In no particular order that would include the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

With the exception of Hagen — who was at the very end of his career when he competed in The Masters in the early’ 30’s — the other three have won a career Grand Slam along with Gene Sarazen and Gary Player.

But there are several players — including Mickelson — who have won three of the four majors. That list includes Hagen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Ray Floyd, Rory McIlroy and Lee Trevino.

I have automatically set aside one of the top ten spots for Harry Varon — he won seven majors and the Englishman was one of the early pioneers in the game who advanced the game in a major way.

Two other modern era foreign players also made significant contributions with the likes of Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros winning six and five majors respectively.

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Given that — where does Lefty stand?

Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Winning a major clearly separates a golfer from his peers. While winning anytime is an accomplishment in professional golf — it is the majors which add even more prestige to a player’s record. But winning multiple majors — especially different majors — demonstrates a capacity that only the best of the best have ever achieved.

Major wins are only one part of the total picture — although clearly a big time factor. The other aspect is one’s top finishes in the majors. How consistent were the performances because while there is only man who can win — the wherewithal to be in contention shows a capacity to influence the final outcome and speaks volumes in terms of overall consistency. For example, Nicklaus won 18 majors with 19 seconds and his span of majors stretches from his first win in 1962 to this final epic triumph in the ’86 Masters at age 46. No doubt, the Golden Bear was always in and around the lead and speaks volumes to his overall standing as the game’s all-time greatest player.

I have automatically set aside those who have won the career Grand Slam as being within the top ten — that leaves five remaining slots. As I said earlier — Vardon would claim one of those spots. I’d also include the likes of Snead and Nelson. Snead is the all-time PGA Tour winner with over 80 wins and although he did not win the US Open — finishing second four times — his overall

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo

longevity — starting in the late 30’s and continuing in contention in majors through the early 70’s is testament to his overall greatness. Nelson did not have anywhere near the longevity of Snead or Nicklaus but Nelson is reminiscent of baseball great Sandy Koufax. Nelson’s career was just over a decade and his brilliance came for dominating golf events. Between his first major in 1937 and through his retirement from active competition in 1947 — Nelson was nothing less than a juggernaut highlighted by his 1945 season in winning 18 of 35 PGA Tournaments — including a mind-boggling 13 straight.

I leave McIlroy out of consideration because his career is still in the process of playing out. Possibly, he can move up in a big time way given what he’s achieved thus far. Floyd — with four majors — was a fine player as well but while his record is solid — his major and career total wins is not equal to that of the best of the best.

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Lee Trevino

Lee Trevino

Mickelson has won 42 times on the PGA Tour. Among the contenders for the final spot in the top ten only Arnold Palmer has won more — 62 — but 27 of his wins came before Nicklaus would turn pro in 1962.  Mickelson is second to Nicklaus in most runner-up finishes in major with 11 total placements. Phil is also the only player to have broken 270 in majors — doing it twice — and losing both times to even better play from the likes of David Toms in the ’01 PGA and Stenson in this year’s Open Championship. And to Phil’s credit — his four-round play score of 267 at Royal Troon came at age 46 — the lowest aggregate for a golfer his age.

On the flip side Phil’s last win of any kind came back in ’13 with his glorious final round 66 in coming from five shots back to win The Open at Muirfield.

Those competing with Phil include some serious credentials.

Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus

Ballesteros does not have the cumulative numbers of the others but like Nelson was an awesome talent for a much more condensed period. The Spaniard entered the world stage at age 19 nearly winning the ’79 Masters. Seve would play the leading role in rejuvenating a European side in The Ryder Cup Matches and in providing a total belief that Europe could best their American counterparts. Unfortunately, after winning his 3rd Open Championship at Royal Lytham in ’88 with a final round 65 at age 31 the quality of Seve’s golf started to dissipate and then utterly disappear. With just 9 PGA Tour wins — a low figure influenced by the inability of Ballesteros to work with then PGA Tour Commissioner Deaner Beman to gain access  to tournaments as he saw fit — Ballesteros also won 50 European Tour titles. Sadly, Seve passed away much too early with a brain tumor at the age 54.

Faldo is another of the contenders. The Englishman was a major contender throughout much of the late 80’s through the early 90’s. To Nick’s credit he completely rebuilt his golf swing under the watchful eye of David Leadbetter in order to handle the pressure in hitting consistent high quality shots in the game’s biggest events. Faldo nearly won the US Open losing in ’88 to Curtis Strange at The Country Club in a playoff. But Nick did win three Masters and three Open Championship — the most interesting being his first where he scored 18 consecutive pars to win in ’87 at Muirfield. He also was able to score 270 in winning his 2nd Open at The Old Course at St. Andrews in 1990. Faldo, like Seve, only won 9 times on the PGA Tour but spent much of it in Europe winning 31 times there. Faldo also tied for 2nd in the PGA Championship in 1992. No question — a solid player but not ahead of Phil.

Lee Trevino also won six majors like Faldo but his victories came in pairs — 2 each at the US Open, The Open and PGA. Lee did not win The Masters — his best finish coming in ’75 with a tie for 10th. Throughout his active playing years Trevino admitted not being comfortable at Augusta and his performance there reflected that. But the Merry Mex showed outstanding form by being the first to shoot four sub-70 scores in winning the ’68 US Open. Three years later Lee would win three

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

national opens — US, Canadian and The Open — in a span of four years. For his success in 1971 — Associated Press named him the athlete of the year. Interestingly, Trevino had a major win span that stretched from ’68 to ’84 — the leader being Nicklaus with 24 years from ’62 to ’86. Trevino is also cited by a few key golfers — including Hogan — to be golf’s most talented shotmaker. The record compiled by Lee is also impressive but Phil’s capacity to total wins — as well as wherewithal to continue playing world class golf at key times places him ahead of The Merry Mex.

That leaves Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer. In Watson’s case he has three additional majors to Phil — most notably five at The Open Championship and in ’09 almost accomplished the unthinkable — winning a major at age 59. It did not happen but it showed conclusively the grit of Watson. Although Watson has three less overall PGA Tour wins than Phil it is clear the he was able to beat Nicklaus in epic matches in major championships such as the ’77 Masters and the tour de force “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry that same year. In my mind — Watson has the clear edge ahead of Lefty.

With Arnold Palmer it’s hard to separate what he did for the overall game of golf and what is individual record achieved. In the former — Palmer revolutionized a game and brought it to the general masses — he made golf a game for the public – not just the elites. On the competitive front — Palmer is truly the forerunner to what Mickelson has demonstrated. Palmer eschewed the “safe” play and his “go for broke” style only made him more human and more loved when he failed. Unlike Mickelson — Palmer really stopped being a major factor in the 60’s and his game — particularly his putting — simply abandoned him in his later years when competing.

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So where does Phil rank?

Overall — I’d say Phil is just outside the top ten. Watson and then Palmer in that order have the edge — not by much but clearly an edge. The final chapter has not been written about Phil and it’s quite possible he can add a few more titles that would cause a possible reassessment for a top ten placement. Nonetheless, to just be in the conversation for an overall top ten placement speaks volumes on the amazing talent of Phil Mickelson and how he has been able to achieve so much when competing in the same time frame with Tiger Woods.

GOLF’S ALL-TIME LISTING

1 – Jack Nicklaus

2 – Tiger Woods

3 – Ben Hogan

4 – Bobby Jones

5 – Walter Hagen

6 – Gary Player

7 – Sam Snead

8 – Byron Nelson

9 – Harry Vardon

10 – Gene Sarazen

11 – Tom Watson

12 – Arnold Palmer

13 – Phil Mickelson

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