Evaluating Phil Mickelson's legacy

As Phil Mickelson polished off his final-round 66 on Sunday with a birdie at Muirfield's 18th hole to win his first Open Championship, Tiger Woods was on the course, frustrated and anxious to end another disappointing major.

Mickelson has known this helpless feeling often through the years. His performance at Muirfield was a reminder of the often treacherous journey he had traveled to get there, through all the heartbreaks, from Pinehurst to Winged Foot to Merion.

Mickelson's desperate longing for the Open Championship, and his almost resignation to the fact that it would never happen, brought his usually stoic caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, to tears on Sunday evening.

Already a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, the victory put Mickelson one step closer to completing the career grand slam.

"I think that if I'm able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that's the sign of the complete, great player," he said Sunday night. "I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me."

Mickelson doesn't need to have all four majors to be a complete player. Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open, and Byron Nelson never took the Claret Jug. And few in the history of the game have been better than these two players.

At 43, Mickelson has a realistic chance of taking several more majors -- including a U.S. Open -- but his legacy as one of the greatest and complete players of all time was cemented at Muirfield.

Legacy in sports has never rested entirely on statistics, despite our reliance on numbers to measure talent and Hall of Fame-worthiness.

There are more than 200 pitchers with more wins than Sandy Koufax, but the former Los Angeles Dodger is the best left-handed power pitcher to ever play the game.

Hank Aaron had more home runs and RBIs than Willie Mays, but the Say Hey kid is widely considered to be the best three-tool ballplayer in history. If Mays had never made another play after his over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds, he likely could ride that one moment for the rest of his life to fame and riches.

We don't remember Tiger's 78 wins, including 14 majors, as much as we do the abundance of jaw-dropping moments that came with some of those victories. Many of us love the arc of his story, from that toddler on "The Mike Douglas Show" to the man who won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one good leg.

We love Mickelson's arc -- from a latecomer to a major title-winner at age 33, to disappointments at U.S. Opens, to a diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, to glory at the Open Championship.

Statistically, there is a considerable achievement gap in the records of Mickelson and Woods. Tiger's numbers dwarf Mickelson's 42 wins and five majors. But that's only one aspect of their dueling legacies in an era where they have commanded a significant portion of the sport's attention.

Phil will never displace Tiger as the best of their generation, but his win at Muirfield could narrow the gap some, in terms of how the two players will be remembered decades from now.

Mickelson has prospered mostly in the Tiger's shadow, yet he's managed to carve his own path as an artist with a knack for the dramatic. Yet at times, his disappointments have loomed larger than his victories.

Meanwhile, Tiger has won so much that his failures have paled in comparison to his triumphs. That favorable ratio for him could change, though, if he isn't able to capture Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

On Sunday, Mickelson did something that Tiger has never been able to do in his storied career: start a final round of a major five shots back of the leader and win the tournament.

It's no less impressive that Tiger has won all 14 of his majors with at least a share of the 54-hole lead. But Mickelson's heroics in some very difficult conditions at Muirfield is another level of greatness that calls to mind the adversity and failure that inspired his spirited performance.

Tiger's been through enough now -- winless in his last 17 majors -- to know something of the anguish that Phil has felt over the years about the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. At 37, Tiger's legacy may ultimately depend on how he handles this phase of his career, when the big victories don't come as easily as they once did.

It could take an epic comeback like the one he witnessed from Phil at Muirfield for him to regain his footing in the majors. It's not clear if he has the will or the ability to do it. Phil showed him that it could be done.

If Muirfield was Phil's last great testimonial as a player, he can retire with his head held high. He might not get Tiger's 14 majors and career grand slam, but he's been to the mountaintop when few expected him to make it. That's a legacy for the ages.