If I’m running the World Golf Hall of Fame, I know right where to place Phil Mickelson’s exhibit when it’s unveiled next May.
Thursday’s news that Mickelson was elected into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot leaves us trying to assess where his legacy belongs even though he’s only 41 years old and still driven to build on his record.
Mickelson has won 39 PGA Tour titles in his career, more than anyone except Sam Snead (82), Jack Nicklaus (73), Tiger Woods (71), Ben Hogan (64), Palmer (62), Byron Nelson (52), Billy Casper (51) and Walter Hagen (45). Mickelson has won three Masters (2004, ’06, ’10), the PGA Championship (2005) and a U.S. Amateur (1990).
And yet Mickelson’s career will be measured in how he won prizes more meaningful than titles and trophies. He won a legion of hearts and minds. He won them with a real knack for mesmerizing us with the spectacular, both spectacular success and spectacular failure. He also won them patiently standing along gallery ropes and signing more autographs than probably anybody but Palmer. He has won them looking so many fans in the eyes, connecting with a smile and a tip of the cap.
“The image of the players and the image of the game is the biggest asset we have,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said sitting with Mickelson at the Hall of Fame announcement Thursday at the Barclays Singapore Open. “Phil has contributed to that in a very positive way.”
As a player, Mickelson will be remembered for playing with a fearless, attacking style.
In that respect, he’s golf’s version of a theme-park ride.
His history of thrills and spills is dizzying.
Mickelson will be remembered as the daredevil who threaded the needle with his impossible shot between the trees from the pine straw at Augusta National's 13th hole on his way to his third Masters’ title last year. It wasn’t the high-percentage shot. It wasn’t even the smart shot. But it was a great shot. He’ll also be remembered as the bedeviled player who knocked his chances of winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006 off a hospitality tent at the 72nd hole.
“God, I’m such an idiot,” Mickelson famously said in the aftermath.
Having the nerve to risk making himself look like a fool is part of his appeal.
Like Ballesteros, Mickelson plays with a creative flair seen in few players, with a relish for creating great escapes.
While Mickelson might not be the greatest player of his generation, he may be its most exciting.
There’s a quirky cleverness about his game that also sets him apart, though sometimes he seems to be too clever for his own good. He won the Masters with two drivers in his bag. He lost a U.S. Open with no driver in his bag. Master of the short game, he once played Colonial with five wedges in his bag.
While Mickelson’s critics wonder if he just likes showing off, if there’s too much calculation in everything he does, there’s no denying the signature brilliance he’s brought the game.
When it’s all said and done, the image of Mickelson that may endure more than any other was his hug of his wife, Amy, after winning last year’s Masters. The couple has three children. Almost a year removed from being diagnosed with breast cancer, Amy embraced her husband that day with tears streaming down her face. Mickelson’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with breast cancer about the same time as Amy.
Through the illnesses of loved ones, through his own diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, Mickelson endures with some big dreams still unfulfilled.
When it’s all said and done, he hopes he’ll have added more memories to his Hall of Fame exhibit.
“To be called a Hall of Famer, that does sound like I’m a little old,” Mickelson said. “Fortunately, I don’t feel old, and hopefully I’ll be able to play quite a bit longer.
“I still want to win a number of golf tournaments. I would like to get to that magic number of 50 wins that few players have done. But, also, finally getting that U.S. Open win would mean a lot to me, as well as would a British Open win, which would conclude the grand slam.
“I came close at the British Open last year at Royal St. George’s. I’ve had five seconds at the U.S. Open. I am going to try to take the knowledge I’ve gained over the years that led to those good performances and see if I can get over the hump.”
And along the way, there’s bound to be more hearts and minds to win.