Viewing golf history through a new “Phil-ter”

Great athletes take one step closer to immortality when they become known by just their first name. Golf has had its share of those players who transcend beyond champions to being considered among the greatest of all time. Golf’s best have included Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnie (Palmer) from the past to Tiger of the present. Well, if Phil Michelson was not among those ranks before his performance at Muirfield this past weekend, he most certainly is now.

Michelson came upon the golf world stage in 1988, when he began his illustrious collegiate career at ASU. While in Tempe, he led the Sun Devils Golf Team to a National Championship in 1990, was named first team All-American all four years at ASU and put the professional golf world on notice after he won the 1991 World Telecom Open in Tucson (aka “Tucson Open”) as an amateur. When he turned pro in 1992, all signs pointed to greatness.

From 1993 through April of 2004, Mickelson went on to win 21 tournaments, but not one Major. At the early stages of his journey, along came the juggernaut named Tiger Woods, who turned pro in 1996, just a few years after Mickelson. Woods went on to be named Sport’s Illustrated’s 1996 Sportsman of the Year and Rookie of the Year by the PGA. In 1997, Woods became the youngest-ever winner of the Masters, the first of his 14 career Major Championships. The golf world became Tiger Woods and the rest (including Michelson) were “the field.”

Every generation has its iconic star as well as the supporting cast, and it appeared that relative to Tiger Woods, Michelson was destined to be the Scottie Pippen of the Michael Jordan era. Woods immediately was recognized merely as “Tiger” and, within just a few years, the pundits were predicting that Tiger would one day eclipse Jack’s major championship victory record. At the same time, many wondered whether Mickelson would ever win a major.

All of that changed at Augusta in April, 2004. Michelson won the Masters, besting Ernie Els by one stroke. Those of us who could not help but root for the guy with the boyish smile and the incomparable humility breathed a sigh of relief. Similar to Tiger, Michelson was immediately recognizable as just “Phil.” He had risen to a new status, but even after the 2004 Masters victory and three more Majors thereafter (2005 PGA, 2006 Masters and 2010 Masters), Phil was still viewed as a great golfer who had the misfortune to be playing in the Tiger-Era. There was little doubt that for this golf generation, Tiger was number one and Phil was and would always be number two.

Then life happened. Each suffered physical obstacles, with Tiger battling a bad knee and Phil ailed by his back and arthritis. More defining were issues regarding family and this is where one fell from grace and the other defined grace. Tiger’s fall is so well documented that not one more word need be said. So I focus on Phil, whose respect for and love of golf pales by comparison to his commitment to family. While Tiger battled the media and the divorce courts, Phil battled against the cancer that had simultaneously struck both his wife and mother. He did so with the same grace and determination that we had loved about him on the golf course.

Even after these life-altering episodes in the lives of each, whether self-imposed (Tiger) or not (Phil), it still remained the Tiger-Era. That continued to be true until this past weekend’s British Open. You could see it coming. While Tiger and others faltered, Phil birded 13 and 14 on Sunday. His second shot at the par 5 17th hole (which lead to a birdie) was then matched by his approach at 18. He birdied four of last six holes, shooting a 66 and coming from five back to win. In true “Phil fashion,” he retained his humility when being handed the Claret Jug. He told those assembled at Muirfield: “I am very proud to be your champion.” He then went on to say: “To be able to share this moment with Amy and my children, Amanda, Sophia and Evan…makes this moment even more special…This is a win that I never knew In my career if I would be equipped, if I would have the shots, if I would have the opportunity to win a tournament here. And to do it [playing] some of the best golf and probably the best round of my career and break through and capture this Claret Jug is… probably the most fulfilling moment of my career.” When asked about whether the victory at Muirfield enriched his legacy as one of the greatest of all time, Phil said that for him to be among the greatest ever, he must still capture the elusive US Open, at which he finished second on six separate occasions but never won.

Well, Phil, I beg to differ. While the career grand slam that would come from winning the US Open would be the icing on the proverbial cake, you have reached the status of being among the all-time greats. And in doing so, this generation of Tiger and Phil have become identified by its iconic moments. For Tiger, almost everyone would agree that it is the fist-pump. For me, there is a new iconic moment for Phil. After raising his arms in triumph on 18 at Muirfield, ESPN televised the first hug Phil received from Amy and his children. That moment of combined championship and family captured the true components of Phil’s immortality.

Jack, Arnie and Tiger, make some room for Phil. He has earned the right to join you!