Given the time we waste trying to shave a few strokes off our handicap, there seems to be one glaring contradiction: as much energy as people exert fruitlessly chasing around a small, white object on a patch of grass (or a mound of sand, or a body of water, or a….), how many people can actually connect to the heart of the sport?
Granted, most people know where and when the sport (YES, sport!) was born (15th century, Scotland) as well as the names of some of the true titans of the game, but beyond that, the fuel tank is relatively empty.
Why can so few people expand on the actual history of the game on anything more than a very rudimentary level, particularly a game most people are possessed with?
When was the last time you compared say, Harry Vardon to Gene Sarazen, or Byron Nelson to Walter Hagen?
Yet, I’m pretty sure that at some point over the past few months Gibson and Koufax or Clemens and Verlander found their way into the conversation during a break in a card game or a Fantasy draft or near a bar stool?
For all of the money we waste trying to find the right clubs, balls and courses to play, our depth for a sport many of us inhale like a drug is as shallow as the kiddie pool.
I’m sure you know when to use a 5-iron, when to lay up (what’s that?) and how to theoretically get a ball to back up on a green with a wedge. (emphasis on theoretically).
But do you know anything about Gary Player, aside from his pretty slick wardrobe?
Probably not, and that’s understandable. Unless you grew up surrounded by affluence, you probably spent your youth the same exact way I did.
Find one subject you truly enjoyed, and when your friends weren’t looking, quietly pursue said course with vigor.
The rest of our days were spent annoying teachers, annoying girls, avoiding detention and doing everything humanly possible to avoid punishment from Mom and Dad so we can do what we truly enjoyed: playing ball in the street with our friends. Baseballs, tennis balls, whiffle balls, basketballs, nerf footballs, leather footballs and electrical tape serving as pucks were all part of the regular rotation.
Yet, I never once grabbed a funny looking thing that resembled a skinny, silver baseball bat with a hook on the end. You know, that thing we now beg to behave once the wheels come off during our weekend Nassau matches.
It’s called an iron.
Basically, I never pretended to be Tom Watson, nor did I dress like Raymond Floyd.
Yet, on the heels of Phil Mickelson’s riveting finish at Muirfield, we are barraged by radio hosts, TV shows and columnists determining FOR US where Lefty now ranks on the all-time list.
Keep in mind, most of those people espousing the history of the game grew up exactly the way we did.
How the hell would they know?
Would you ever let someone have that much influence on you when debating the ’84 Tigers and the ’86 Mets? Or comparing the great Yankee teams of the late 70′s to those of the mid to late 90′s?
Of course not, and it’s time to end that trend with golf.
In trying to accurately place Mickelson in the proper slot, I first had to establish my own personal Top 10. Leaning on expert opinions and stats, it looks this way, minus Phil:
To complete the circle, I compiled a similar list for baseball, hoping to connect the dots:
From that list, I easily deduce that Ruth and Mays deserve undeniable separation from the rest of the pack, much like Jack and Tiger.
See where I’m going?
With eleven and nine majors respectively, Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan are the golfing equivalent of Bonds, undeniably the most amazing player I’ve seen (PED enhanced, granted) and Ted Williams, widely recognized as the greatest pure hitter of all-time. Lore has it that Hogan’s ball-striking ability was so natural, the Williams “comparison” feels right.
Personally, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial earned their place in the Top 5 or 6, just like Watson, Palmer and Player. Those three studs combined for 24 majors. Simply put, Phil ain’t there, not yet anyway.
Rounding out the lists, my combination of Snead, Sarazen and Jones are a cut below the top spot, much like Gehrig, Mantle and Wagner.
The next time you’re debating Mickelson’s place in golf, look right at Mantle and use this to bolster your position.
Like Mantle, Phil’s penchant for providing awe-inspiring moments has led to a mythical existence, even though we’re watching it unfold right in front of our eyes.
Like Mantle, Phil is, or perhaps was, fatally flawed. Mickey sabotaged his career with the bottle while Phil derailed his at points with an inability to grasp one simple concept: the smart play vs the heroic play.
Leaving the driver in the bag at Winged Foot is one example, while five other 2nd place finishes at the US Open are a few more.
So, where does Phil rank all-time? Right now, 9th seems like a pretty safe play.
Imagine where he’d rank if he “matured” earlier?
Hey, it’s hardly perfect, admittedly. But at least when someone asks me about Phil’s legacy in golf, I have an answer.
Not someone else’s.
Of course, you can borrow mine if you so desire.