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Arnold Palmer vs. Phil Mickelson

Who is the better No. 2?

By: Jonathan Abrahams

If history is fair, it will say the 2006 U.S. Open was not Phil Mickelson’s career nadir, but his moment of realization, that the “maturing” that produced two Masters and a PGA Championship in three years was a red herring, and the double bogey that cost him the Open was actually the final piece of the who-is-Phil Mickelson puzzle: A terminal swashbuckler, beloved by a large, fiercely loyal but ultimately doomed legion of fans who know that their man, despite all his gallantry, will never be the best in the world—a description that sounds a whole lot like Arnold Palmer.

If Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods blitzed the record books with lethal, impersonal precision, Arnold and Phil have been the alternative—genial, charismatic winners capable of smiles and eye contact, ultimately reminding galleries of what makes professional golf unique: the possibility of connection between a player and his fans so strong that they share in his success, or in some cases, his heartbreak.

Palmer commanded an Army; Mickelson leads a couple of divisions at the very least. Both players’ biggest wins have come with exciting, birdie-filled, go-for-broke play. Palmer began his final-round 65 at the 1960 U.S. Open by driving Cherry Hills’ 346-yard 1st hole. Mickelson made five birdies in the last seven holes to win his first major, the 2004 Masters.

Both were 36 at the time of their most spectacular collapses. Mickelson had just celebrated a birthday two days before his double-bogey finish at Winged Foot; Palmer stood on the 10th tee of the Olympic Club with a seven-stroke lead after 63 holes of the 1966 U.S. Open. He shot 39, lost the playoff to Billy Casper, and an Army mourned.

But the reckless play that has afflicted both players is somehow more forgivable with Palmer, who never had Mickelson’s talent. Palmer played golf like a boxer fighting his way off the ropes, attacking the course with a swing that looked as if it were assembled in a home-machine shop: bowed left wrist at the top, violent downswing, lunging helicopter finish. Even in victory, Palmer made the game look just as difficult as it actually is. Palmer, Mickelson has the game to pick his spots and still lap the field. Already having won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as an amateur, the only question when he turned pro in 1992 was just how much history he would make. And that’s why, 15 years later, his risk-taking plays more like immaturity than heroism.

In light of this, Mickelson’s appeal is a bit mysterious. Despite his extraordinary talent (and wealth), Lefty is the people’s choice. Is it empathy for his failures? Unlikely. Palmer’s chain smoking and blue-collar pants-hitching were points of validation for the average Joe, and perhaps the same can be said for Mickelson’s flabby midsection.

But while Palmer reached the game’s pinnacle—if only briefly before being toppled by Nicklaus—Mickelson never took advantage of the four years between his turning pro and Woods’ arrival in the fall of 1996. Still, Mickelson is at the peak of his career. He might win five more majors, putting him ahead of Palmer. But Mickelson will never come close to matching The King’s legacy—on or off the course.

It says a lot that while Palmer received such a regal nickname, the best sobriquets anyone has been able to do for Mickelson are the obvious “Lefty” and the pedestrian, unimaginative “Philly Mick.”

Folks point to Mickelson’s 2004 Masters victory as one of the tournament’s most exciting, but for impact, don’t forget Palmer’s victory in 1958. Witnessed by a throng of soldiers from a nearby base who dubbed themselves “Arnie’s Army,” that Masters literally put televised golf on the map and established it as a sport that could be enjoyed outside the country-club set.

For 40 years, his was the face of the game, with a list of endorsements so long that he entered the 1990s as one of the world’s most recognizable athletes. Palmer will always be remembered as the greatest ambassador the game has ever had; Mickelson, the great talent who played second fiddle to Woods. The irony is it’s all because neither of them wanted to play safe. 

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