Phil Mickelson birdied four of the last six holes of the Open Championship at Muirfield to claim the prize that even he had doubted was within his compass. In taking possession of the Claret Jug, another level of professional fulfilment had been attained, a fifth major and the third element of a career Grand Slam. He was a popular winner, the only man to break par over four rounds and three strokes better than anyone else. This famous course does not permit imposters to sully its roll of honour. The company he keeps is consummate with his standing in the game. Now that he has conquered the wild frontier, the exposed links which had prodded his weaknesses with their crooked finger, he deserves a recognition which many were not prepared to concede. When we speak of the greatest, no longer should he remain an embarrassed afterthought.
So what are his credentials for membership of such an exclusive club? Results at the highest level are the required currency and his tally now matches the late Severiano Ballesteros. Since it provides an examination of different qualities, and tests the versatility and adaptability of a golfer, the British leg of the golden quartet is an essential box to tick. Having done so, Mickelson is able to rate alongside the likes of Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson in lacking only one component of the elite haul. Just the US Open continues to elude him, and it does so with a hearty cackle. Six times he has knocked on the door only to find it bolted shut, the latest of his agonising near-misses coming at Merion in June. This is impressive consistency but the inability to clamber over the line has provided ammunition to his detractors. If there are more seconds than firsts on his record, doesn’t that suggest his application ought to be black-balled?
That would be to ignore the forty two PGA Tour successes which make him the ninth most prolific in history, before you factor in a further nine victories in Europe, including the Scottish event at Castle Stuart the week prior to his exploits on the Lothian coast, which instigated a unique double. It’s a small, if not insignificant, achievement but one to which Tiger Woods cannot lay claim. And we shouldn’t be too flippant about that because the long shadow of his nemesis has defined perceptions. In another time, had his achievements not been dwarfed by those of his aloof contemporary, he might have secured appreciation more easily. Woods’ fall from grace contrasted with Mickelson’s own domestic crisis, his wife’s battle with cancer. The two men are far apart in image. Favourable media though does not compensate for having to watch the far less decorated Lee Westwood and Luke Donald take their respective turns as world number one while he still waits to scale that final rung to the pinnacle.
But it does matter that the applause on that final green last week was warm and genuine. The California born man may well be pleasant and polite, devoted to his family, and beloved of the blue chip sponsors who have little fear of reputational fracture, yet the affection he generates is not solely a product of his amiable portrayal. His playing style endears him to those who envy his gifts from the galleries; he satisfies their urge to go for broke, to take on the course and to risk going down in flames. Patience and conservatism carries the day on these windswept shores they said. He hits the ball too high off the tee, his flop shot places him at the mercy of conditions they said. Maybe so, but he left his driver at home and on the final stretch, as others faltered, his bravery conquered the assumptions. He had thought a way to overcome the failings without compromising his natural exuberance. Isn’t that a measure of distinction?
That left handed swing makes Mickelson one of the most instantly identifiable sights out on the fairway. It can hardly be described as natural, having been honed in a mirror, but since working with Butch Harmon, whose subtlety of interpretation bypasses most observers, some of the kinks have been ironed out. Noticeable of late has been a slighter wider arc, less susceptible to late manipulation of the clubface. This added control has reduced some of the former waywardness. Yet the erratic tendency had moulded certain other aspects which now give him an edge. The scrambling game which so often got him out of trouble matches almost anyone on the circuit, as too does his mental capacity to banish adversity and focus on the next shot. With lengths that lose little in comparison to the modern breed who devour yardage at will, it could be argued that he is actually improving. Experience counts; at the Open he was the third successive champion over forty.
He won’t threaten Jack Nicklaus. He plays in a more competitive era than did Ben Hogan or Gene Sarazen. The brooding Tiger would never have found the class to applaud his opponent’s brilliance as another Ryder Cup slipped away. Your criteria for admission are your own; there are no rules. Greatness is bestowed every bit as much as it is earned. For my money, I reckon the debate will become increasingly irrelevant. I just don’t think Mickelson’s finished yet. There’s time to win over those who still withhold their seal of approval. Next year the US Open returns to Pinehurst, scene of the first of that sextet of close shaves. What an appropriate venue it would therefore be to put the matter of his stature firmly to bed.