Phil Mickelson solidifies his contentious golf legacy

Remember when Phil Mickelson couldn’t win a major championship?

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Remember when Phil Mickelson couldn’t win a major championship?

Remember when he was defined by the label, “Best player never to win a major?’’

Remember the eye rolling that took place when he told anyone who would listen that he was going to break through at a major and, when he did, he’d win a bunch of them?

Remember the theories that suggested he’d never win one because of his stubborn insistence about playing such a hellbent aggressive style of golf?

Remember all those maddening, soul-crushing near-misses in U.S. Opens — Winged Foot in 2006, Merion in 2013, Shinnecock in 2004, Pinehurst in 1999, Bethpage in 2002 and 2009?

The six runner-up finishes in the major championship he coveted most when he was a kid and the one that has eluded him and stands between him and becoming only the sixth player in the history of the game to complete a career grand slam?

Remember when he was ridiculed for his physique?

Criticized for not being able to overcome Tiger Woods?

Remember all of those things?

Now remember this: Mickelson’s stirring and historic victory in the 103rd PGA Championship on Sunday at Kiawah Island catapulted him into rarified air in his sport.

Winning the PGA Championship, his second PGA title and sixth career major, just three weeks shy of his 51st birthday to become the oldest major championship winner in golf history by nearly three years moves Mickelson further up the list of the greatest players of all time.

Like pretty damned close to the top five of all time.

Everything in these conversations is, of course, subjective. And arguments will ensue. But the only players I would place above Mickelson on the list of all-time greatest players are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Ben Hogan.

Phil Mickelson holds the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the final round at the PGA Championship golf tournament.
AP

Walter Hagen (11 majors), Tom Watson (8), Sam Snead (7), Gene Sarazen (7), Bobby Jones (7) and Harry Vardon (7) all have more majors than Mickelson.

But, other than Watson, I’d argue that the competition those players competed against was not nearly as deep as the pool Mickelson has faced, most notably in thick of the Woods’ era. As for Watson, five of his eight majors came at the British Open.

As for its place in the history of the sport in terms of its significance, where do you place this win by Mickelson?

Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters victory (his 18th career major win) came when he was 46 years old and has always been considered the greatest victory in the history of the sport based on Nicklaus’s stature as the greatest player of all time, how long it had been since he’d won and his age.

Mickelson is more than four years older than Nicklaus was in ’86.

Woods’ Masters victory in 2019 surely ranks up there based on the litany of physical issues he’d endured with his back and the off-the-course scandal.

Woods, himself, must have been emotional watching what Mickelson has done this week.

“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win … like if I’m being realistic,’’ Mickelson said. “But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run.’’

Next up is the U.S. Open next month at Torrey Pines, which happens to be in Mickelson’s hometown of San Diego.

What he did this week — keep his focus for four days and close the deal Sunday amidst five hours of tension and adversity — can do nothing but bolster Mickelson’s belief that he can finally win a U.S. Open.

“I’ve believed for some time now, without success, that I could play at my best and compete in major championships still,’’ Mickelson said. “But until this week, I haven’t proven it to myself or anyone else. But I do believe that I believe that if I stay sharp mentally, I can play well at Torrey Pines.’’

Mickelson said he’ll take two weeks off before the U.S. Open (he almost always plays the week before a major, so this is a shift in strategy), go to Torrey Pines and “spend time on the greens and really try to be sharp for that week, because, I know that I’m playing well and this could very well be my last really good opportunity.’’

No one took Mickelson seriously as someone who might win the PGA this week. Now, who’s going to bet against him at the U.S. Open?

“You can just see it in his eyes that he wants to win,’’ Collin Morikawa, the defending PGA champion, said after his round. “And nothing is really stopping him.’’

Nothing did.

Any nothing is stopping more questions about how good Mickelson has been and still is? Or what his standing is among the all-time greats?

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mark Cannizzaro

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