Golf is not like the other sports. It’s more athletic than you think, but it’s still not basketball, not tennis, not track and field, not football or hockey.
Nor is it baseball, where longevity can be attained by remaining very good at only one of its skills, like hitting the ball a long way or getting batters to miss it.
So there’s little use in comparing what Phil Mickelson did at the PGA Championship last weekend to Tom Brady winning another Super Bowl, Jamie Moyer throwing a two-hit shutout as a 47-year-old Philly, Gordie Howe scoring a playoff goal as a 52-year-old Whaler.
Is Lefty more amazing or less amazing than they were? More amazing or less amazing than Roger Federer or Serena Williams, still near the top of their sport, both 39.
No good answers.
So here’s some advice.
Don’t think of Mickelson as a question that needs answering.
Once getting past the singularity of his achievement, clipping Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen by two strokes at Kiawah Island, think of him as a portal through which to view him and his game, because that portal is rich and telling, explanatory and unreal, tangible and otherworldly.
As the Associated Press’ Doug Ferguson pointed out earlier this week, Mickelson has never led the money list, never been ranked No. 1, never even been named the PGA Tour’s player of the year..
Still, somehow, his career dwarfs all contemporaries who have. Well, that is, all but one. And, what Mickelson just did to claim his sixth major championship — his second PGA to go with three Masters and a U.S. Open — is still something Tiger Woods has not done, and is not likely to do, given that it would require his winning one of the four majors in 2026, when he his 50 years old, as Mickelson is now.
Think about this.
Tiger won his last tour event, the Zozo Championship, in China, on Oct. 28, 2019, 8,423 days after he won his first one, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational.
Jack Nicklaus won his last event, the ‘86 Masters, 8,702 days after winning his first one, the the ‘62 U.S. Open, at Oakmont.
Tom Watson won his last event on May 24, 1998, the Colonial, happening right now, all these years later, still in Fort Worth, 8,730 days after claiming his first one, the ‘74 Western Open.
Watson, it should be pointed out, bogeyed the 72nd hole and lost a playoff to Stewart Cink for the ‘09 Open Championship as a 59-year-old at Turnberry that, had he won instead, would have made Mickelson’s accomplishment notable, but not so historic.
Yet, Watson didn’t win and Mickelson did … 11,089 days after winning his first tour event as 20-year-old collegian, still at Arizona State, turning down the $180,000 prize money at the ‘91 Northern Telecom Open that went to Scott Verplank instead, the man he beat by a stroke.
At 20, for at least a week, he was the best player in the world. At 50, for at least a week, he was again the best player in the world.
Though Mickelson didn’t win his first major until 13 years later — nobody’d been the best player on earth without a major longer than he had — his time span from first to last, 2004 to 2021, still runs longer than anybody who’s ever played beyond Nicklaus, Tiger, Watson and Gary Player, unless you’re counting Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor, both born in the 19th century, thus you shouldn’t..
Arnold Palmer brought the game to the masses, but wasn’t nearly so good for so long.
Lee Trevino helped limit Nicklaus to 18 majors, but topped out at six.
Ray Floyd was amazing but only won four of golf’s greatest prizes. Nick Faldo won six, same as Mickelson, but won them all in 10 years. Ernie Els got stuck at four. Rory McIlroy’s still stuck at four.
We mentioned Mickelson’s first victory, then a Sun Devil, back in ‘91?
Verplank got the winner’s check Lefty turned down. The rest of the field split the remaining $820,000.
On the day he won his sixth major, last Sunday, and his 45th tour event in all, Mickelson won $2.16 million and the rest of the field split the remaining $9.84 million.
In not merely years, it is an unthinkable span.
When Nicklaus posted his last top 10 at Augusta National, April 12, 1998, Mickelson finished 12th, teeing it up at the Masters for the eighth time. Player made the cut that year. Palmer was still in the field.
It’s like the whole sport runs through Mickelson, for longer back than we can remember, until when we can’t possibly know.
Did you see him hole that bunker shot at No. 5? Did you see him keep it together down the stretch? Did you see how every other leader faded?
It’s an indefinable legacy.
Perhaps not ever the best, but forever close and always there.
He’s not leaving.