The 2013 PGA Tour season was, in golf terms, a wild 10-month sprint that provided some sort of peak drama or controversy almost every week. It was one of the more memorable campaigns of the past 25 years, and Phil Mickelson, perhaps this generation's most exciting player, put his imprint on the season with several of its most dramatic moments.
Since early August at the PGA Championship, the golf media and punditry has dissected the arguments of three of the biggest names in golf who are positioned for this year's Player of the Year award. The award rarely generates this much discussion, with the winning nominee usually an obvious choice by midsummer. But this year, Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Adam Scott can all arguably claim that they're deserving (Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar are the other two finalists). Those are three titans, with the aging Phil and Tiger once again jumping up to 1-2 in the world rankings this summer and batting back the young crop of world-class talent we keep hearing will take over.
Phil cannot match the win total of Tiger, or the consistency of Scott this season, but his best was better in 2013 and it was the kind of rollercoaster that could characterize his entire career -- jackrabbit starts and stops from career shots to crushing blows within 15-minute spans. Despite being second all-time on the PGA Tour money list, Mickelson has never won the Player of the Year award. But what he called the round of his life, and one of the greatest rounds in the game's history, should be a clinching argument in another successful season for the five-time major winner.
The 2013 Player of the Year debate is a snapshot of the constant wrangle over what matters most in golf and how we define careers. It's comparable to much of the bluster in the other sports -- who's "elite"? -- except golf has less advanced statistics and analytics to settle or aid the arguments. So do Tiger's five non-major wins outclass Phil's three worldwide victories or Scott's two wins and consistent contention at the majors? The best win of the season was built on the best round in maybe a decade, and that was Mickelson's back nine bolt into the clubhouse at Muirfield for a 66.
Phil's 2013 major win came at the most surprising moment and unlikeliest tournament, a reason why he called it the most satisfying win of his career. It seemed Mickelson's season, as it often does, would hit its high point, and low point, just a month earlier at the U.S. Open. America's national championship is the white whale of Phil's career, but he entered Sunday at Merion in the lead with total confidence that he would finally get one. Instead, even a miraculous Sunday hole-out eagle could not deliver him his first U.S. Open, as a classic Phil screw-up on Merion's easiest hole blew his chances and resulted in a sixth runner-up finish. After the round, Mickelson called it the most heartbreaking of all his near-misses at that major, which seemed like an unrecoverable loss and that resignation would set in for the rest of the season.
But just a month later, there was Phil going back-to-back in Scotland, winning the Scottish and British Open in consecutive weeks. Unlike the U.S. Open, Mickelson had rarely contended at the British -- his high ball getting lost in the links wind. It was simply an event he attended because it was a major and he had to show up. There wasn't that chase or pursuit quite like the U.S. Open. But in the last five years or so, Phil started to take it more seriously with prep work at the Scottish Open and some better results at the game's oldest major.
Mickelson hung around all week at Muirfield, but was never really the favorite like at Merion. After his opening round, he shrewdly and publicly complained about the baked out conditions, with almost the rest of the field jumping on the bandwagon and the R&A taking steps to slow things down for the weekend. But Phil was still always in the background, struggling to really make the move into contention. He started his Sunday final round five shots back and spent most of the day as an afterthought on the broadcast. And then, out of nowhere, the Open was over -- Mickelson running away with a three-shot lead after four birdies on the final six holes of an incredible round of 66. It was a quick strike, an hour of drained birdie putts, par saves, and a career highlight three-wood laser to get home in two on No. 17. It was a startling and sudden change, Phil walking off the 18th green with his caddie in tears knowing they had just won the most difficult and challenging major of his career.
Phil has won majors in dramatic fashion before, but this was a career-defining, and perhaps career-altering victory. Mickelson himself has said that it's changed the entire way he thinks about the game and his career, and it was the best win of the 2013 season. This victory, combined with the Scottish Open win (I know it's not technically germane to this award) and his early-season dominance at the Phoenix Open should be enough to edge out Tiger and Adam.
It happened so long ago, but the opening round 60 at TPC Scottsdale should also be considered one of the best rounds in a loaded career resume. Of course, it finished in the most Mickelsonian of ways:
So those are two career highlights in one season for Phil. There were seven top 10 finishes and almost $5.5 million in cash won, so the PoY baseline is also there behind those showy highlights.
One of the arguments against Phil's candidacy is the inconsequentially quiet finish. He had two amazing rounds in the FedExCup -- a late Sunday charge at The Barclays and another brush with 59 (including an outward 28 front nine) in the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. After that British Open win, however, Phil never really contended again. But can't we say the same for Tiger, who cruised to his fifth win on the comfortable Firestone South but spent most of the season since May scuffling on Sundays and dropping out of contention.
Woods is the one who has pushed the value of major wins even higher, with his manic chase of Jack Nicklaus's record and his common refrain that a season is not a success without a major. Tiger has altered and softened that definition a little bit this year, and he's still the favorite to get the most PoY votes from his peers because of those five wins. But Phil's three worldwide victories, the opening round in Scottsdale, and the way he closed out the British should make 2013 Lefty's year.