Rude: Mickelson rises into top 10 of all time

Phil Mickelson after his win in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

Phil Mickelson after his win in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

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Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

Phil Mickelson’s remarkable Open Championship victory moves him up to a new level historically. Given a record of 42 Tour victories that includes five major-championship titles, one can sensibly say the left-hander is now one of the 10 best players in modern golf history.

Previously, Mickelson fell somewhere around 15th. Now 10th place seems reasonable. And, his driving and putting and confidence being as good as they are, he seems to have plenty of time to keep climbing, never mind that he is 43.

One man’s top 20 in the post-Harry Vardon era:

  1. Jack Nicklaus (73 Tour victories, 18 majors).
  2. Tiger Woods (78 and 14).
  3. Ben Hogan (64 and 9).
  4. Bobby Jones (13 old-school majors).
  5. Sam Snead (82 and 7).
  6. Arnold Palmer (62 and 7).
  7. Byron Nelson (52 and 5).
  8. Walter Hagen (45 and 11).
  9. Gary Player (24 and 9).
  10. Phil Mickelson (42 and 5).
  11. Tom Watson (39 and 8).
  12. Gene Sarazen (39 and 7).
  13. Billy Casper (51 and 3).
  14. Lee Trevino (29 and 6).
  15. Nick Faldo (6 majors).
  16. Seve Ballesteros (5 majors).
  17. Greg Norman (20 and 2).
  18. Ernie Els (19 and 4).
  19. Vijay Singh (34 and 3).
  20. Cary Middlecoff (40 and 3).

• • •

Mickelson’s closing 66 at Muirfield shook the archives in another way. It’s safe to say it was one of the 10 best final rounds in major history, men’s division.

Johnny Miller’s 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont is the gold standard. Jack Nicklaus’ 65 at the 1986 Masters is a close second. Then we have the likes of Arnold Palmer’s 65 at the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, Greg Norman’s 64 at the 1993 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Tom Watson’s 65 in outdueling Nicklaus at the 1977 Open at Turnberry, Ben Hogan’s 67 at the 1951 Open at Oakland Hills, David Graham’s 67 at the 1981 Open at Merion and Mickelson’s gem at Muirfield.

• • •

If your correspondent had wagered, say, a thousand quid on Mickelson pulling off the linksy Scottish Open-Open Championship double at whatever astronomical odds, then you might not be reading this column now. Might have had enough to retire while flying back over the Atlantic.

• • •

The headline in a British newspaper two days after the Open read: “Tiger’s fiercely competitive flame is more like a feeble flicker these days.”

You read that and think that Woods isn’t so much compared with his contemporaries as he is with his brilliant past. “Feeble flicker” is hyperbole, for Woods tied for sixth place. He continues to be measured against expectation and yesteryear, not a fair fight.

Yes, Woods is not the player he once was, say back in 1999-02, and it seems he never will be because he doesn’t drive or putt as well now and doesn’t have the same assassin’s touch on major weekends. Yes, his major drought extends to June 2008, but it is not as if he has disappeared, for he has nine top-10 finishes in his 17 majors since, some of those during his winless, post-scandal years of 2010-11.

I have read, too, that Woods, still at 14 major titles, has never been more unlikely to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. That is hooey as well, for several reasons: He’s No. 1 in the world; his gun is loaded again, as evidenced by his seven PGA Tour victories in the past 16 months, and he is far more equipped than those doldrum seasons of 2010-11.

The most stunning part of his Open at Muirfield was this: He was tied for the lead through 52 holes but then, uncharacteristically, bogeyed seven of his next 17 holes. That is not the Woods we once knew; rather, it’s startling given his mental toughness and smart play over the decades.

His conservative style didn’t do him in as much as his distance control and miscalculations. Three of those dropped shots were the result of inaccurate drives; three because of long-range three-putts after misjudging approaches and coming up woefully short, and one because of the mis-hit of a 3-wood into a cross bunker after he unwisely chose not to tee off with a driver on the 17th hole Saturday.

At 37, Woods has plenty of time left. One needs only to check the record of his chief rival to realize that. Mickelson has won all five of his majors since turning 33.

• • •

“Feeble flicker” would seem to better fit the current plight of Mr. Rory McIlroy, no?

• • •

For the second Open in a row, Adam Scott bogeyed four consecutive holes on the last nine after taking the sole lead. This year’s was far less painful, for one reason: Scott won the Masters.

Imagine if he hadn’t. He has.

“It would’ve been tough,” he said.

Softening the blow this time is that Mickelson birdied four of the last six holes and won by three shots. Scott also was outdueled when Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four in winning the 2011 Masters.

Hence, the affable Australian already has taken a positive away from Muirfield.

“Maybe next time I’ll think of Phil and Charl and just go for it,” he said.

• • •

It happens every year. For the first couple of days upon returning from the Open Championship, I seem to use the word “brilliant,” “lovely,” or “proper” in every sentence.

While such a brief habit might be lovely or brilliant to some ears, it would be only proper to suggest the words don’t sound as good with a nasally Midwestern accent that has a splash of Southern twang.

It follows that I’ve maintained for years that if you had an Englishman and, say, a Texan read the same 200-word speech, their IQs would sound planets apart. With all due respect to the Lone Star State, of course.

• • •

Speaking of the United Kingdom and Texas, I have long maintained that if you moved the Old Course at St. Andrews to Mesquite, Texas, it would be called Mesquite Municipal, the green fee would be $17, the order of play would be determined by balls in a rack, the course would be largely empty and the architect would not get another design job.

But since that isn’t the case, the Old Course at St. Andrews is the most treasured place in golf. History, setting and feel are just three of the reasons.

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