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Golf nuts like me like to categorize golfers, to list them in order of their importance or achievements. It occurs to me that Phil Mickelson’s win last weekend at The Masters is a rather significant development. (By the way, I am SO relieved to have been dead wrong when I predicted a three-stroke win by Tiger: My crystal ball told me it would be a three-stroke win by a guy with wife problems; I misunderstood and thought it was the guy whose marriage was in trouble, not the guy whose wife is battling cancer while he supports her with every ounce of his being.)
In the modern game (which began, in my book, when Francis Oumiet won the US Open and made golf into a major American sport), any list of the greatest players all-time would have to begin something like this: 1A and 1B would be Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. It’s almost impossible to put one above the other, because the comparisons are so tough: One stayed an amateur and retired early, which makes his accomplishments in his brief time as a competitor all the more remarkable, while the other, who did play as a pro, gets points for sustained excellence.
Number 3 on the list, with an arrow still going up, is Tiger Woods. Check back in a decade and see if he has surpassed Nicklaus in total accomplishments. He’s already close. Number four is indisputably Ben Hogan, whose nine major titles probably would be ten if World War II hadn’t interfered, and whose 64 career PGA tour wins are all the more extraordinary when one considers how few tournaments he played per year after his horrific car accident.
After Hogan, the next seven are easy to list in aggregate, but debate could rage forever on the exact order they belong in. They are: Sam Snead, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson. That is, by the way, the precise order I would put them in, by the tiniest of increments. I definitely think Watson belongs on the bottom half of that list of seven (somewhere, therefore, between nine and 12), although if he had won the British Open last year that alone would have moved him up probably to an undisputed Number Five all-time.
After those, there is a bright, bright line to the next tier — but Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo are without question in the next tier, with six major titles each.
Now this is where the Mickelson win comes in. Before last week, Mickelson clearly ranked a bit below both Billy Casper (three majors each, with 37 wins to Casper’s 51, but with Mickelson making up some of the difference by seriously challenging so frequently in majors) and Seve Ballesteros (five majors, all sorts of international titles, and phenomenal Ryder Cup success) — somewhere in a group with Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff, Raymond Floyd, Tommy Armour, Peter Thomson and perhaps Vijay Singh. Now, with major number 4 and overall tour win number 38, to go along with his 12 other second- or third-place finishes in major championships, Mickelson clearly leaves behind those six (with Singh still able to catch back up) and also edges past Ballesteros and the underappreciated Casper. In other words, he moves from a group of seven golfers in the range of 16th to 22nd best, up to a three-way discussion with Trevino and Faldo for 12th through 14th. I would indeed move him past Faldo, into a tie with Trevino, if I had to pick. In short, he moves from about 18th into a tie for 12th — a big jump. And at a still-young 39-nearing-40, he has quite a chance to leave Trevino behind, and even, with another two major titles (if he can somehow manage that), to join the discussion of the Elite Eleven, turning it into a Terrific Twelve. In sum, Mickelson is now at least within range of the golf immortals, at the very top of the list of those who are “merely” great but not immortal. That’s quite a step up.
(By the way, since I’ve listed through 22, I may as well round out to the top 25. I would go with Bobby Locke, then Johnny Miller, and then probably Hale Irwin edging Horton Smith for 25th. Lloyd Mangrum, Harry Cooper, Gene Littler, Paul Runyan, Julius Boros, Ernie Els, Nick Price, and Greg Norman, and Ralph Guhldahl are in the batch after that.)
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