SHANGHAI – The streak ended with little fanfare, and that was just fine with Phil Mickelson.
He slashed his way to a tie for 28th in the HSBC Champions, with only 100 or so fans following along. Mickelson played his last nine holes right behind Rory McIlroy, but only because Lefty was in the first group to tee off on the back nine. He signed for a 68 in his final round of the year.
The number that stands out is No. 51, his position this week in the Official World Golf Ranking.
For the first time in nearly 26 years – 1,353 weeks to be exact – Mickelson is no longer among the top 50 in the world.
“It was a good run,” Mickelson said Sunday. “Unfortunately, the last eight months I played terribly and have fallen out. But I’ll get back in there.”
The question is whether anyone can ever match it.
Jordan Spieth was not quite 4 months old when Mickelson first cracked the top 50 on Nov. 23, 1993, with a runner-up finish in the Casio World Open. Deane Beman was the commissioner of the PGA Tour.
Rory McIlroy compared Mickelson’s streak to Tiger Woods going 142 starts on the PGA Tour over seven years without missing a cut.
“Being top 50 in the world since 1993, that means no injuries, no breaks, that is nothing,” McIlroy said. “Play your game, keep going.”
That’s all Mickelson has done.
He never reached No. 1 in the world, mainly because of Woods, partly because Mickelson was not on top of his game when Woods fell off and created an opportunity. Then again, Mickelson never won a PGA Tour money title or was voted PGA Tour player of the year.
His hallmark is consistently great play, and it is unrivaled.
“It’s pretty amazing given he was there into his 40s like that, with how much time is taken from golf with your family,” Spieth said. “You’re not as sharp because you’re not doing it as often. I give him more credit in the last seven to 10 years.”
Mickelson nearly fell out at the start of 2018, and then he ran off four straight top 10s, culminating with his third World Golf Championships title in Mexico City. He reached No. 17 with his victory at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February – his seventh win in his 40s, including a major – and was hopeful of a big year.
He hasn’t finished better than a tie for 18th since then.
McIlroy is completing his 11th year in the top 50 – he first cracked the top 50 with a runner-up finish in Hong Kong in 2008 – and that’s now the longest current streak. For everyone else but Mickelson, it seemed something always would go wrong, whether it was injury (Woods) or a spell of bad play (Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose).
No one thought Woods would drop from the top 50 – much less No. 1, a spot he twice held for five straight years – until his personal life imploded and then his legs broke down, and his streak of 15 years in the top 50 ended in 2011.
It starts with great golf, and Mickelson is among the best to ever play.
“You have to have good balance,” Mickelson said. “Amy (his wife) is a big part of that, having a good balance of family and playing schedule, so when I do play I’m focused. Having kids on the road early in my career was a big thing.
“For the most part, it’s having the desire to work on it, and having passion for it and love it and enjoying it and competing.”
McIlroy believes the record can be matched, and he thinks it goes beyond staying injury-free. McIlroy had back trouble very early in his career, and he missed a chunk of time in early 2017 with a rib injury, only the second time he went through an entire year without winning.
“I would have said that a few years ago,” McIlroy said about injuries. “But I feel as good as I ever have.”
He also is 30. What will he say 10 years from now?
“Hopefully, what Tom Brady says,” McIlroy replied, referring to the 42-year-old New England Patriots quarterback. “I feel better than when I came into the league.”
McIlroy says a family and shifting priorities could become more of an obstacle than injuries, which impresses him about Mickelson.
Spieth is more impressed with Mickelson having played on the last 24 teams for the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, another streak that is ending. Mickelson qualified for 19 consecutive teams and only recently had to rely on a pick. But those streaks go hand in hand.
“You’re not going to make teams if you’re not top 50, or top 20 even,” Mickelson said.
That’s where Mickelson could be found for three weeks shy of 26 years, and even though the streak is done, Mickelson says he is not.
He already is talking about making the next Ryder Cup team.
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