What Phil Mickelson pulled off at Kiawah Island made for one of the great days in golf history. Special enough, it would seem, to shoot him way up the list on the all-time men’s ranking.
That it doesn’t quite do so might seem disappointing or even unjust to some. But that’s recency bias talking, as well as a not-uncommon underestimation of how good the best golfers from previous eras were.
Consider my own list of the top 20 (including some hopefully helpful notes) and where Phil stood on it before he won on Sunday:
1: Jack Nicklaus (18 majors, 73 PGA Tour victories, career Grand Slam)
2: Tiger Woods (15 majors, 82 PGA Tour victories, career Grand Slam)
3: Ben Hogan (9 majors, 64 PGA Tour victories, career Grand Slam)
4: Bobby Jones (7 professional majors, 6 amateur majors, original calendar Grand Slam)
5: Sam Snead (7 majors, 82 PGA Tour victories)
6: Arnold Palmer (7 majors, 62 PGA Tour victories)
7: Gary Player (9 majors, 24 PGA Tour victories, career Grand Slam)
8: Byron Nelson (5 majors, 52 PGA Tour victories, 11 victories in a row)
9: Tom Watson (8 majors, 39 PGA Tour victories)
10: Walter Hagen (11 majors, 45 PGA Tour victories)
11: Gene Sarazen (7 majors, 38 PGA Tour victories, career Grand Slam)
12: Harry Vardon (golf’s first superstar, 7 majors)
13: Lee Trevino (6 majors, 29 PGA Tour victories)
14: Seve Ballesteros (5 majors, 50 European Tour victories)
15: Phil Mickelson (5 majors, 44 PGA Tour victories)
16: Nick Faldo (6 majors, 30 European Tour victories)
17: Billy Casper (3 majors, 51 PGA Tour victories)
18: Rory McIlroy (4 majors, 19 PGA Tour victories)
19: Vijay Singh (3 majors, 34 PGA Tour victories)
20: Ernie Els (4 majors, 19 PGA Tour victories)
A list of incredible names and incredible records. Among those who were kept off the list are Raymond Floyd, Peter Thomson, Jim Barnes, Hale Irwin, Bobby Locke, Nick Price, J.H. Taylor, James Braid, Young Tom Morris and the runner-up at the Ocean Course, Brooks Koepka – 10 players who have won 41 majors.
Of course, this is just my own list, completely unofficial and finally subjective. As is any list of the greatest players. But the criteria used in such lists is fairly standard – mainly major championships, total official wins and degree of dominance a player achieved in his era. Also considered is the depth of talent during that era and other subjective judgements, like Mickelson, for example, possessing perhaps the best short game in history.
The lists don’t tend to vary that dramatically, especially at the top. The differences in the order and who gets left off come from the formulations of the criteria.
After his victory on Sunday, I raised Mickelson past Ballesteros, Trevino and Vardon to 11th place, just behind Walter Hagen.
Many of today’s golf fans might consider Hagen an ancient who played a game that would be overwhelmed in the modern era. But Hagen beat everyone put in front of him, a lot. Rather than allowing Mickelson to pass him into the top 10, I felt that there was a better argument that I should have ranked Sir Walter – with 11 majors – even higher.
I could be accused of giving in to Mickelson euphoria myself, but if Lefty wins another PGA Tour event and passes Hagen’s 45 victories, it would effectively be a tiebreaker that would get Phil into that all-time top 10.
Of course, if he’s able to win the U.S. Open, which no longer seems like such an impossible dream and would give him the career Grand Slam and TWO majors after the age of 50, then Mickelson would jump past Watson and Nelson and get to eighth all-time. And maybe to some, all the way to fifth, past Player, Palmer and Snead. Still not quite on golf’s Mt. Rushmore with Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan and Jones, but even considering that a possibility demonstrates the potency of Mickelson’s late charge into the record book.
In the end, the order of a list is just a conversation starter. What’s more important and lasting is the defining impression that a name evokes. And now when I think of Mickelson, it won’t be as the player whose prime had to be viewed through the filter of the Tiger Woods era. But instead as one whose own greatness lasted so long that he could emphatically claim his own very special identify on an unforgettable stage.