Voices

Should Phil Mickelson go for broke and become the greatest senior golfer ever?

October 19, 2020
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Brett Carlsen

In the wake of Phil Mickelson’s win at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic last weekend, Ryan Herrington dug up some impressive numbers on Lefty’s senior career so far. It’s worth diving into the whole jaw-dropping article, but the short version is that in two starts thus far, Mickelson has been great in ways that go beyond his two wins. He’s been capital-D Dominant, and even that word undersells it.

How about this: When I was a kid, I used to be really into the Civil War, and when I watched movies like “Gettysburg,” I’d think, “what would it be like if a few people had machine guns during these battles?” Well, Phil Mickelson on the PGA Tour Champions is kind of like bringing a machine gun to a rifle fight. He’s 50 years old, very fit and with a game that’s still sharp enough to compete on the PGA Tour. On the 50-and-older tour? He’s a monster, and it’s impossible not to fantasize about how good he could be if that were the sole focus of his attention.

Let’s come back to Earth for a moment: Phil Mickelson is not going whole hog on the senior circuit anytime soon. Even after his second win, he’s scheduled to play at the Zozo Championship and the Houston Open in the next three weeks, and there’s not a Champions event on his scheduling horizon. He can still run with the young pups, and as a guy with a healthy ego, I’m sure he’d balk at the suggestion of leaving his glory days behind in a quest to become King of the Graybeards. For the moment, at least, what I’m proposing is pure fantasy.

Now, back to the stratosphere. If Phil did turn 100 percent of his energies to the PGA Tour Champions, just imagine what he could accomplish! The G.O.A.T.s right now are Hale Irwin, with his record 45 wins, and Bernhard Langer, with his record 11 majors. And sure, Mickelson has a very long way to go, with his two victories and zero majors. But! If he started now, how long would it take him to get 10 wins? Five majors? In a non-pandemic year, there are just shy of 30 events on the PGA Tour Champions calendar and five majors. Within three years, on his current form, I’d put Mickelson conservatively at 15 wins and six majors. That’s one win every six events, and while that would be a ridiculous pace on the PGA Tour, it doesn’t seem all that radical for Phil among the AARPers.

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Brett Carlsen

Mickelson looks out from the first tee during his first PGA Tour Champions start in August.

There’s a chance that this is coming off as an insult to Mickelson’s new old peers. That’s not my intention; I know the level of play is extremely high. I know that just because Phil has gone 2-for-2 so far, it doesn’t mean he’d continue at anywhere near that same rate. The fact remains, though, that he has an age advantage on his competitors, and an uncommonly strong game for a 50-year-old … as you can tell by the lack of other 50-year-olds who are still competitive enough to finish second in a World Golf Championships events after their golden birthday (Mickelson did just that at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude in August). Plus, he seems to be in the best shape of his life, he’s hitting the ball a mile and though he’s sustained a couple of down years on the greens, he’s at worst an average putter by PGA Tour standards. In other words, the man still has his touch.

So let’s talk about legacy. What does Mickelson have left to accomplish playing the young man’s game? The way I see it, there are three milestones left:

  1. Win a U.S. Open to complete the career Grand Slam.
  2. Winany major to become the oldest man to do it, and the only man older than 50.
  3. Win a PGA Tour event after age 52 to break Sam Snead’s record as the oldest PGA Tour winner.

As for Nos. 1 and 2, Mickelson can still compete in the majors as a senior golfer. For No. 3, maybe he can come back when he’s old enough. None of it, in the theoretical world, would keep him from becoming a full-time PGA Tour Champions golfer today.

On the flip side, the stakes of transitioning to the PGA Tour Champions are high. With a decade of success, he could become the greatest senior golfer ever. How many people can say they are the greatest at anything in the world? It’s a serious opportunity, and I’d bet any amount of money that on some level, in some idle moment, Mickelson has already considered it. He craves newness, risk and challenge, and he’s enough of a maverick that there has to be some appeal to the idea.

This is my final pitch: Mickelson is already one of the greatest golfers of all-time, but he’s not the G.O.A.T. He’s not even the G.O.A.T. of his era. There’s only one thing that can change that—making a sudden and swift career transition to the PGA Tour Champions. I’m not saying it would be easy to reach the dizzying heights, or that success is a foregone conclusion. But his performance so far proves that he’s got a great shot, and nothing but time ahead of him. Plus, it would be the ultimate golf adventure. Who else can say, at age 50, that they’re starting a journey to become the best in the world?