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Mickelson's win puts him in a new category

8/16/2005

Perhaps we have all learned from this. Just like that, Phil Mickelson is seen in a whole new way.



Less than two years ago, Lefty was lugging around a reputation as an underachiever, a know-it-all who stubbornly refused to alter the way he played the game despite repeated heartbreaks caused by his attacking style. Three years ago, he was telling us he would never change, that the only way he can be happy is to play aggressively.


Now, as a multiple major-championship winner, Mickelson can rightly lay claim to being one of the best players of his generation and, at the age of 35, still has plenty of time to improve his rating against the all-time greats. Although it would generate a little too much expectation to point out that Ben Hogan won his first of nine majors at the age of 34 -- the same age at which Phil grabbed his first -- it would be well within reason to expect that Mickelson will continue to add to his total. He has proven to be a major champion.


Anyone paying even the least bit of attention the last two years had to notice that Mickelson has finally grown into his talent. And maybe now, Phil will acknowledge that many of his persistent critics were not so much attacking him as displaying frustration as they waited for the Phil we are now seeing to arrive.


Mickelson always took it so personally when he was criticized for squandering an opportunity with an unwise play or a missed important putt. Maybe now he understands that his critics were merely marveling at his enormous ability and wondering when he would fulfill his potential. And maybe those critics will acknowledge that the guy who seemed to wear the title of "Best Player Without a Major" the longest is halfway to the career Grand Slam and has won two of the last eight majors.


With his victory Monday at Baltusrol Golf Club in the PGA Championship, Mickelson moved up to an entirely different level in terms of how his career will be viewed. Phil not only has won two majors in two years but has done it in the manner of a true champion, taking both by making a birdie on the last hole while playing in the last group.


Those are not gift victories -- they were hard-earned decisions that should silence those who have questioned Mickelson's toughness. We should have learned a greater appreciation of Phil Mickelson from the PGA Championship, but that is only part of what we should have learned. Here are a few other bits of information laid on us at Baltusrol.


• Tiger Woods is unquestionably the best player in the world. End of discussion. He won two major championships this year and finished second in another before he tied for fourth place in the PGA Championship. We also learned a lot about what an amazing grinder Woods is. After the fourth hole of Friday's second round at Baltusrol Golf Club, he was 15 strokes behind Mickelson. Tiger ended up two strokes behind Lefty.


• Thomas Bjorn is an Everyman we should embrace for his human frailties. He spoke openly about the demons that have haunted him in tournament golf, and once walked away from a tournament, but not from the game. With admirable courage, he deconstructed his swing and pieced it back together again. With astonishing speed, he saw those efforts bear fruit at Baltusrol, where he tied for second place, and missed forcing Mickelson into a playoff by about a quarter of an inch. Bjorn was spectacular in his record-tying 63 in the third round, but he was more impressive in the way he fought his demons to a draw in the final round.


• The PGA of America needs to build a margin of error into the schedule for its major championship, as does the USGA. Why plan to end an event with only the minimum amount of time needed if a playoff is required? Why refuse to alter the schedule if there is a strong possibility of a weather interruption, as there was Sunday? It is in the best interest of the fans and the players to end the tournament early, if need be, so that it doesn't run a day late.


• Jack Nicklaus was really good. No, really good. No, make that really, really good. Once, in making the point that the word "great" is overused, totally delightful Fred Couples said, "I'm not great, I'm good, and good's not bad." I think Freddie would agree that "great" is not an overstatement when it comes to Jack. There have been 36 major championships since Tiger Woods turned professional, and Tiger has won 10 of them. That's amazing. During that run, Vijay Singh has won three majors, with Ernie Els, Mark O'Meara, Retief Goosen and Mickelson claiming two each. During the 25 years Nicklaus won major championships -- from 1962 through 1986 -- Tom Watson won eight, Gary Player seven, Lee Trevino six, Seve Ballesteros and Raymond Floyd four each, and Arnold Palmer three. Nine other guys won two each. That's a lot of quality competition.


• Sports fans in the New York City area are a unique breed who think being a fan is a participatory sport. They embraced Mickelson last week at Baltusrol, and he was the clear fan favorite, but they also showed unrestrained appreciation for great shots hit by anyone in the field. Although perhaps not the most knowledgeable golf fans in the world, they are the most enthusiastic. Watching them trudge around in 100-degree heat Saturday was as impressive as watching 40,000 Scots watch golf in a cold, driving rain at the Muirfield British Open in 2002.


• Perhaps the best lesson of all: The major championships are truly special, and it is a little bit sad that the Grand Slam events are behind us for another year. Oh well, just seven more months until the Masters. Can't wait.


Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.