Phil Mickelson solidifies his contentious golf legacy

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Remember when Phil Mickelson couldn’t win a major championship?

Remember when he was defined by the label, “Best player never to win a major?’’

Remember all those maddening, soul-crushing near-misses in U.S. Opens — Winged Foot in 2006, Merion in 2013, Pinehurst in 1999?

The six runner-up finishes in the major championship he coveted most when he was a kid and the one that has eluded him and stands between him and becoming only the sixth player in the history of the game to complete a career grand slam?

Remember when he was ridiculed for his physique?

Remember all of those things?

Now remember this: Mickelson’s stirring and historic victory in the 103rd PGA Championship on Sunday catapulted him into rarefied air in his sport.

Winning the PGA Championship, his second PGA title and sixth career major, just three weeks shy of his 51st birthday to become the oldest major championship winner in golf history by nearly three years moves Mickelson further up the list of the greatest players of all time.

Like pretty damned close to the top 5 of all time.

Everything in these conversations is, of course, subjective. And arguments will ensue. But the only players I would place above Mickelson on the list of all-time greatest players are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Ben Hogan.

Where do you place this victory in the history of the sport in terms of its significance?

Nicklaus’ Masters victory in 1986 (his 18th career major win) came when he was 46 years old and it’s always been considered the greatest victory in the history of the sport based on who Nicklaus was, how long it had been since he’d won, and his age.

Mickelson is more than four years older than Nicklaus was in ’86.

Tiger Woods’ Masters victory in 2019 surely ranks up there based on the litany of physical issues he’d had with his back and the off-the-course scandal.

Woods, himself, would have to have been emotional watching what Mickelson has done this week.

“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win … like if I’m being realistic,’’ Mickelson said after the victory. “But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run, I don’t know. But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.’’

Next up is the U.S. Open next month at Torrey Pines, which happens to be in Mickelson’s hometown of San Diego.

What he did this week — keeping his focus for four days and closing the deal Sunday amidst five hours of tension and adversity — can do nothing but bolster Mickelson’s belief that he can finally win a U.S. Open.

“I’ve believed for some time now without success that I could play at my best and compete in major championships still, but until this week, I haven’t proven it to myself or anyone else,’’ Mickelson said after his most significant victory. “But I do believe that I believe that if I stay sharp mentally, I can play well at Torrey Pines.’’

He said he’ll take two weeks off before the U.S. Open (Mickelson almost always plays the week before a major), go out to Torrey Pines and “spend time on the greens and really try to be sharp for that week, because I know that I’m playing well and this could very well be my last really good opportunity.’’

Who’s going to bet against Mickelson right now?

“This is a guy I’ve watched my entire life, and to see him actually go out and contend, lead and come out today trying to win this championship, it’s amazing,’’ Collin Morikawa, the defending PGA champion, said. “You can just see it in his eyes that he wants to win, and nothing is really stopping him.’’

Nothing did.

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