"I've been going at it pretty hard," Mickelson said Tuesday night before going to a sponsor dinner, downtown Shanghai glittering with lights behind him. Tiger Woods left Japan with his 82nd victory on the PGA Tour, a number hard to fathom even when seen on the digital pages of a record book. Mickelson arrived in China trying to extend a number equally astonishing.
He is one month away from completing 26 consecutive years inside the top 50 in the world ranking. Mickelson didn't play last week and narrowly held his position at No. 50. The HSBC Champions, which he has won twice, is likely his final event of the year. This is his last shot to assure staying in the top 50 until he plays again early next year.
Those two numbers — 82 and 26 — represent records unlikely to be matched again in a sport that keeps getting younger, deeper and stronger — and keeps growing in numbers as markets develop across Asia.
One of those numbers is more meaningful because the ultimate goal of any player is to win. Rory McIlroy, who turned 30 last year, reasoned he would have to win six times a year for the next 11 years to reach 82 PGA Tour victories. That's a tall order considering his best on the PGA Tour is four victories in a season, and he has done that one time.
Woods had 12 seasons of at least four victories — eight of them before he turned 30 — and four seasons with at least eight victories. Since he turned pro in 1996, only four other players have won five times or more. Vijay Singh won nine times in 2004 when Woods was revamping his swing (again). Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Justin Thomas did it while Woods was recovering from his back surgeries.
Mickelson had four years of winning four times in PGA Tour-sanctioned events, most recently in 2009. Woods spoke of consistency required to match — for now — Sam Snead's career victory record. He hasn't cornered the market on that.
Consistency has been the hallmark of Mickelson's career. "I don't think people give it enough credit," Ian Poulter said of Mickelson's record in the world ranking. "To sustain top 50 ... you're talking about the best 50 golfers on the planet. That's hard to do. I've been there. I've also dropped out and made it back. I know how difficult it is. And it's really hard to get back in when you're out."
That's what makes this World Golf Championships important to Mickelson. He is playing because he feels his game is close, and he's waiting for the scores to validate that feeling. His body might be shrinking, but Mickelson is still going strong.
He played the CJ Cup in South Korea two weeks ago and then went to Macau for a youth clinic with Li Haotong. From there, he flew to San Diego so he could be home for daughter Sophia's 18th birthday and then flew back across the Pacific to Shanghai for the HSBC Champions.
His stay in the top 50 is bound to end sooner or later. For now, file it away with performances that will be among the toughest to match. Mickelson has another one that speaks to his longevity, and that one is almost certain to end. He has played on every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup team starting in 1994. That's 24 consecutive teams, only four of them requiring a captain's pick. He qualified for the Ryder Cup team 11 straight times.
He is resigned for that streak to end. Woods is the Presidents Cup captain and makes his four wild-card selections next week. Mickelson hasn't had a top 10 since he won at Pebble Beach in February. "There are much better options of players that have played consistently at a high level that deserve to be on the team and I have not ... even if I were to win, I have not done enough to warrant a pick," Mickelson said in South Korea. "I'm not asking for one. I don't expect one."
Oddly enough, he has never reached No. 1 in the world. He has never been voted PGA Tour player of the year or won the points-based award from the PGA of America. He has never won the money title — Mickelson was leading in 1996 until Tom Lehman won the Tour Championship.
Those are some of the more obscure marks, and perhaps the world ranking falls into that category because it only began in 1986. Ditto for the consecutive Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup appearances, mainly because legacies in those competitions are built more on what happens after the team photo.
It is no less impressive. No one from the generation of Woods and Mickelson can relate. It's hard for anyone from the next generation to contemplate.