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Is Phil Mickelson one of the 10 best golfers ever?

By Kyle Porter | Golf Writer

Phil Mickelson with his caddie Jim 'Bones' Mackay at the 2013 British Open. (USATSI)
Phil Mickelson with his caddie Jim 'Bones' Mackay at the 2013 British Open. (USATSI)

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Whether or not Phil Mickelson is one of the 10 best golfers who has ever lived was probably a conversation before his 66 at Muirfield on Sunday but it's definitely a conversation now.

His final-round comeback at the 2013 British Open was an historic win -- it means more than Lefty just getting his first British Open and fifth major overall, it means he's in the mix with some of the greatest names to ever play the game.

First, let's talk about the golfers he's definitely behind -- for context we're only going to look at three big statistics: total majors (most meaningful), total PGA Tour wins (pretty meaningful), and European Tour wins (somewhat meaningful).

Who you played against also matters -- if all your majors came at the British Open from 1889-1899 I'm not sure how seriously I can take you as one of the 10 greatest golfers in the history of the sport (no offense, Old Tom Morris! Or Young Tom Morris, for that matter!)

So the golfers ahead of Mickelson right now, in order:

1. Jack Nicklaus
2. Tiger Woods

I don't really think that is up for debate.

3. Ben Hogan
4. Sam Snead
5. Walter Hagen
6. Arnold Palmer

Hogan gets the nod over the other three because he won the career slam.

7. Gary Player
8. Tom Watson
9. Gene Sarazen

I put Player over Watson because he took the career slam even though Watson had a lot more PGA Tour wins.

And now we can start the conversation about Mickelson. Here's a look at who he's competing against for that 10th spot:

Byron Nelson (five majors, 52 PGA Tour wins) -- Probably Mickelson's best comparison.

Seve Ballestros (five majors, nine PGA Tour wins, 50 European Tour wins) -- Those 50 wins in Europe are big time.

Bobby Jones (seven majors, nine PGA Tour wins ) -- Jones also had six US Amateurs and British Amateurs which, at the time, were considered majors.

Lee Trevino (six majors, 29 PGA Tour wins, two European Tour wins) -- Barely in the top 20 of most PGA Tour wins but tied with Nick Faldo for 12th most majors.

Nick Faldo (six majors, nine PGA Tour wins, 30 European Tour wins) -- Fifth-most European Tour wins of all time and tied for 12th-most majors.

Harry Vardon (seven majors) -- All of his majors came between 1896-1914.

Mickelson now has five majors, nine European Tour wins, and 42 PGA Tour wins which is the ninth-most ever. He's one of only 15 golfers ever to win three of the four majors and he's third all-time in second place finished at majors with eight -- only Nicklaus (19!) and Palmer (10) have more.

What's strange is that we're having this conversation and Mickelson has never even been No. 1 in the world in his career one time.

A lot of people will see Bobby Jones on this list and chastise me for being young and stupid and not knowing my golf history. My rebuttal: he only really played for eight years because mentally he couldn't take (or didn't want to take) the pressure. Mickelson's winning has spanned the course of 23 years (and counting). That means something. I'm not saying Mickelson should be ahead of him, just pointing out facts.

I'm going to take Vardon out because it's likely you can't name me a single golfer he beat. Faldo is out because he only won two of the four majors. Trevino is out because he won fewer PGA Tour events than Vijay Singh.

Ballesteros was great but he also only won two of the four majors and didn't win very much in the United States.

So to me it comed down to Nelson, Jones, and Mickelson.

In the end I suppose I have to give the nod to Jones because of all those US Amateurs and British Amateurs and because he won the grand slam in 1930 and because, even though he didn't play very long, his career was magical.

Plus, he created the Masters!

Here's a look at Jones' last four years of competitive play (from top to bottom: US Open, British Open, US Amateur, British Amateur):

He played in 11 of them, won eight, and finished second one other time. That's a pretty stout run.

I'll say this about Lefty though -- if he ever gets a US Open (and my gosh, how has this not happened yet?) then he automatically vaults to seventh on my list. He will be one of only six guys with the career slam and one of only four men (Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan) with 40 plus PGA Tour wins and the career slam.

So yeah, Mickelson's Sunday greatness this year meant more from an historical standpoint than just getting that silver jug and picking up a $1.4 million check.

It means he's in the mix as one of the 10 greatest golfers ever and, hey, he's not done yet.

For more golf news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnGolf and @KylePorterCBS on Twitter or Google+ and like us on Facebook.

 
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