CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Mickelson has won four major championships and let just as many get away.
In contention at the Masters, he boldly played a 6-iron through a tiny gap in the pines trees that barely cleared Rae’s Creek and settled some 4 feet away. In contention at Augusta National this year, Lefty played consecutive shots right-handed on his way to a triple bogey.
He won Colonial by hitting a shot through the trees and over the water. He lost a chance to win Bay Hill by trying to hit 4-iron under the trees and over the water.
He played a Masters with two drivers in his bag and a U.S. Open with no driver.
Mickelson will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday evening along with four others, taking an undisputed place among the best who ever played this game.
His 42 wins worldwide include three Masters, a PGA Championship and two World Golf Championships. Beyond his trophies, Mickelson is wildly popular with the fans for the way he engages them on the golf course and spends hours signing autographs. For every story about his generosity, there probably are dozens more that never get told.
The definition of Mickelson as a golfing great, however, can be a little trickier.
Geoff Ogilvy, who won the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after Mickelson took double bogey on the final hole, was asked the first thing he would say about Mickelson’s legacy. Not surprisingly, he had to think about it.
“There’s only one Phil, isn’t there?” Ogilvy concluded. “He’s astonishingly talented. Incredibly talented. And very human. There have been a lot of superstars with kind of this never-do-anything-wrong persona. He’s had as much written about stuff he wasn’t happy with than the good stuff. Most superstars have three little blips and 50 great things. He’s had 50 great things and 50 things where people are scratching their heads.”
That’s the way “Phil the Thrill” likes to play.
Two years before Mickelson finally won his first major at the Masters, he defended his approach of taking on any shot without fear, each one a calculated risk. He said he would never change, even if he never won a major, because “that’s how I play my best golf.”
He elaborated more on that at the Wells Fargo Championship, just days before his induction.
“You’ve got to play without fear,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen. You have to deal with losing. It’s part of the tour. Out of 156 guys each week, one person is going to win, so 155 lose. But you can’t worry about that. You’ve got to let it brush off when things don’t go your way. But rather than play tentatively or with concern or fear, or let someone else hand it to you, I’ve always liked to try to get the tournament in my control.
“I think it’s more than desire of trying to control my own destiny than let somebody else handle it, which has forced me to play aggressive.”
Also to be inducted at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., are two-time major champion Sandy Lyle, three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Hollis Stacy, writer Dan Jenkins and British broadcaster Peter Alliss.
Butch Harmon, who began working with Mickelson in 2007, said the win-at-all-cost mentality on the golf course is what separates players like Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els from the others in their generation.
Singh and Els already are in the Hall of Fame. Woods will join them when he reaches the age limit of 40 to get on the ballot.
“Phil has got the biggest set of (guts) of anyone to play the game,” Harmon said, whose list of clients over the years has included Woods, Els and Greg Norman. “He’s not afraid to try any shot at any time in any situation. And the reason is all he cares about is winning. He’s a modern day Arnold Palmer. He’s a go-for-broke guy, and he’ll tell you that’s how he plays.
“He’ll say, ‘Yes, I cost myself some tournaments. But I won 40 and four majors, and I wouldn’t have done that playing any other way.'”
Most peculiar among Mickelson’s career to date is that he has never achieved No. 1 in anything. He has not been No. 1 in the world ranking or on the PGA Tour money list. He has not won the FedEx Cup in its five years of existence. He has never been voted player of the year.
Part of that is timing, playing all but four full seasons in the era of Woods.
The Woods-Mickelson rivalry, though one-sided in wins and majors and awards, is the most celebrated in golf since the days of Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson has been linked to Palmer so much more beyond the golf, however.
Mickelson spends an hour after most rounds, signing his name on flags and programs, making sure it is legible. When there are times he wants a day off from signing autographs, he handles that privately so as not to disappoint.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem often says the image of his players is the greatest asset, and the topic came up last November in Singapore when Mickelson’s election to the Hall of Fame was announced.
“He is exactly what you like to see in a player,” Finchem said. “If everybody conducted themselves like Phil week and week out, we’d be stronger yet.”
Mickelson said he is honored by his induction, though he is not overly excited. It feels awkward to go into the Hall of Fame at age 41 when he is still among the favorite to win more tournaments, more majors. He already has won this year at Pebble Beach for his 40th career tour victory, with a goal of reaching 50.
He said his speech likely would focus on what golf has allowed him to do, and he wasn’t just talking about winning. It’s the places he has been, the people he has met. But as he thought back on 20 years, he recognized the very thing that has made him so much fun to watch.
“The ups and downs, highs and lows, talking about it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s not. All those great experiences that have taken place in the last 20 years, it’s really been fun. And I’m appreciative of the fact I’ve been able to play golf for a living.”