Mickelson’s final-round charge that led to his win at The Open Championship, as well as another runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in June and his win at the Scottish Open in early July have a lot of folks talking about Lefty’s place in golf history.
Just a decade ago, Mickelson was viewed as an underachiever whose potential for major championship dominance never materialized for one of two reasons:
- Tiger Woods’ domination of major championships from 1997 to 2008.
- Mickelson’s aggressive style of play.
Five major championship victories later, no less of an authority than Jack Nicklaus has said that Mickelson will go down as one of the greatest players ever. With over 40 PGA Tour wins, and victories at the Masters (three times), PGA Championship and Open Championship, it is not too soon to discuss where Phil stands in the pantheon of great players — especially considering his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open, which would be a great career in itself for many long-time Tour players.
When we compile any list of the “best ever,” era comparisons invariably rear their head. It is difficult if not impossible to compare Old Tom Morris and Tiger Woods, so perhaps some criteria are in order. To be fair, we needs an apples-to-apples basis for our list and I think we have to consider some of the following:
Dominance: Was the golfer the dominant player of his/her era? Did he/she beat the others often enough to be the best player of that time? This is tricky, because in golf we’ve had “waves” of great players who often stood in the way of one another.
- The “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and J.H. Taylor, to the early American supremacy of Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen.
- The war years of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.
- The modern era of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
- The “Tiger” era.
In the first three eras, there always seem to be three players that stood out among the rest. So if a player didn’t win every time (in golf, they don’t), the greats were often in contention. For example, there’s no doubt that Palmer and Player took potential titles away from Nicklaus, but even when Nicklaus lost he was often in close pursuit.
Only Tiger Woods has stood head and shoulders above the rest in his era. The late 1990s to 2008-2009 is really the only time we’ve had one player completely dominate an era, with the possible exception of Bobby Jones from 1923 to 1930.
Some may argue that Tiger dominated the golf world because their was no other “great” player at the time. Tom Watson was past his prime, and Nick Faldo was slowly exiting the scene as well. Mickelson was still learning to win the big ones, and not the player he is now. Others like to argue that Tiger dominated because he was playing the best golf the world had ever seen, which I’ll touch on more later in the story.
Major championships: While it difficult to say where the cut off line would be, I will arbitrarily select five (5) as the number of majors a player had to win to be considered on our greatest-of-all-time category. Here, too, we are on a slippery slope, because majors have changed.
The U.S. Amateur is a great example: In Bobby Jones’ era, surely it was a major. In Jack’s era, it may have been marginally a major, and today is clearly is not. The Masters, a modern day major, was not played until 1934, and the PGA Championship not until 1916. So we have to be careful when comparing on this basis alone. But majors are how we define good from great in our game, and, in some form, we have to consider their records in them.
Longevity: Again, using this as one of our criteria can get confusing, as golf is a game where most players do NOT stay at their peak for very long. Nicklaus, Snead and Player are notable exceptions, but many of the game’s greats have had short reigns at the top.
Jones was at his best from 1923 to 1930, while Nelson was in his prime from 1937 to 1945. Even in the modern era, all of Palmer’s majors came in an 8-to-9-year period. And often the flame burns brightest before it burns out: Nelson, 18 wins in 1945, gone two years later; Jones won the grand slam in 1930, retired the next year. A player named Ralph Guldahl, one of the premiere players in the 1930s, won back to back U.S. Opens and nothing after really — so did Curtis Strange.
On the other hand, Snead won events over a 30-year period as did Gary Player, and Jack over 25 years. So we still have to give longevity a place on the list.
Total Wins: There’s no denying that great golfers are able amass their share of total tournaments won around the world, not just the PGA Tour. Gary Player, for example, won only 24 events on the PGA Tour, but over 150 worldwide. Tiger is rapidly approaching Sam Snead’s all-time record of 83 PGA Tour wins, but of course he also has 14 majors victories. Considering all that, here is my vote for the top 10 players ever:
No. 1: Jack Nicklaus
With 18 professional majors, 2 U.S. Amateur titles and 73 PGA Tour wins over 25 years, Jack’s record speaks for itself. Tiger has won three more times on the PGA Tour than Nicklaus, but until him or someone else tops his record 18 major championships, there is no question that “The Golden Bear” is the greatest golfer of all time.
The best golf that has even been played was from Woods from 2000 to 2008, but he still has work to do to catch Jack in longevity (Nicklaus won his last major at the age of 46) and majors.
No. 2: Tiger Woods
In his prime, Tiger was the best golfer the world has ever seen. Winning the U.S. Open Championship by 15 shots, the British Open by 11, the Masters by 12 and the “Tiger Slam” are just a few of the things that separate him from the others.
Consider this statistic: Tiger has won 25 percent of the professional tournaments he has played. The next best on that list is Phil at 8 percent! And I, for one, believe his comeback is almost complete and inevitable. But until then he remains firmly in second place, four majors away from the No. 1 spot.
No. 3: Ben Hogan
Hogan was the consummate ball striker, winning three consecutive majors in 1953 — The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open (he didn’t play in the PGA Championship).
The “Wee Ice man,” as the Scots affectionately named him, was one of the best ever. His nine major championships in a five year stretch is the stuff of legends, and it seems that his legend is improving as the years go by.
Remember this: Hogan basically only played the majors after his near-fatal car accident.
No. 4: Walter Hagen
With the possible exception of Gary Player, Hagen was the best match play player ever, and maybe as good a putter who has ever lived as well.
Hagen taught golfers that confidence is a MUST in championship golf, personifying his self belief with his lavish dress and habits. He won four consecutive PGA Championships (1924-1927), five British Opens and 2 U.S. Opens.
Once, needing to hole out from the fairway from 155 yards to force a playoff, Hagen had his caddie remove the flagstick! That’s confidence.
No. 5: Bobby Jones
The best amateur golfer of all time, and his No. 5 ranking here could easily be higher — Jones quit tournament golf at the unthinkable age of 28! In 1930, his grand slam year, he only played in two other events.
Remember this: Jones averaged one round a week during his playing days, and he put the clubs away most of the winter! He was an amazing talent that may never be duplicated. In his last 12 national championships (U.S. and British), he was first or second a staggering 11 times.
No. 6: Gary Player
With nine majors and over 100 victories worldwide, Gary Player brought physical and mental fitness to the world of professional golf. He was also the first to play the game internationally at the highest level.
Player is one of only five players to win the modern grand slam, and he also won the World Match Play Championship an unprecedented five times! But because he played in the same era as Nicklaus, Player’s place in history is sometimes greatly underrated.
No. 7: Sam Snead
Sam Snead is still the winningest player ever on the PGA Tour, with one of the sweetest swings anyone has ever seen. He amassed 81 wins on the PGA Tour, all while while playing in the era of Hogan and Nelson.
He won the West Virginia Open 17 times, often playing in bare feet in the early days. A natural athlete who took great care of his body, Snead could kick the top of a door frame with his other foot on the ground!
No. 8: Arnold Palmer
Every young player who collects a big, fat paycheck today should quietly thank Arnold palmer. “The King” popularized the game and brought it to the masses like no player before him.
Loved and adored by fans for his go-for-broke style, Palmer saved a moribund game and Tour after the Hogan era. Consider this: from 1960 to 1966, Palmer won the U.S. Open once (Cherry Hills, 1960), and played off for the title in 1962, 1963 and and 1966. Although he lost all those playoffs, that is first or tied for first for four out of six years!
No. 9: Byron Nelson
His 18 wins (19 if you count the New Jersey Open) in 1945 puts him automatically on my top-10 list. A quiet man, who eschewed the spotlight, his ball striking has become the stuff of legends.
Byron was alleged to hit a golf ball straighter than anyone before or since him. But he disliked tournament golf, often to the point of nausea before big matches.
Once Ben Hogan, who saw Nelson with his head in the toilet before the 1942 playoff for the Masters, actually offered to delay the start of the match! They didn’t and Nelson won. After his record-breaking 1945 season, he retired two years later.
No. 10: Harry Vardon and Tom Watson
I’m copping out a bit here because although the two played some 75 years apart, the single dominance of the British Open alone (six wins for Vardon and five for Watson) make it very difficult to choose.
Vardon actually invented the more modern golf swing, and left us with the famous “Vardon Grip,” the overlapping grip as we know it, and dominated golf just as it was coming to America.
Watson won 39 PGA Tour events, eight of them majors, and of course came within a whisker of winning the British Open at the age of 59 in 2009. He may be best known for his memorable battles (and victories) with Jack Nicklaus when Jack was in his prime.
I would love to hear from anyone who would adjust my list. Please remember, this my the list as it stands today. My list does not include Mickelson yet, but he is surely a bullet!
How can my list NOT include Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Billy Casper et al? Well, again it is my list, and I was asked to write the piece. Again, era comparisons are difficult at best, but it makes for great 19th hole conversation.
Fianlly, I think Phil is a long way from through, and at some he will be on that list. His talent is that good.
As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.