Phil Mickelson, who ended Tiger Woods's six-tournament PGA Tour winning streak last week, is a modern-day example of the man who, swallowed whole by a dangerous mammal, escapes to resume his life. The Old Testament version is Jonah and the Whale, but on Sunday at the Buick Invitational it was Lefty and the Tiger. First there was the big gulp: Woods sinking a birdie putt on the 13th green at the Torrey Pines South Course to tie Mickelson for the tournament lead, having made up a deficit of seven strokes in just six holes. Then there was the unexpected regurgitation: Mickelson making birdie from the trees on the same hole, then making three more birdies down the stretch for a four-shot victory over Woods and Shigeki Maruyama, a smiling bystander.
"I was just toying with him," Mickelson joked. Well, sure, just like Matt Gogel toyed with Tiger six days before at Pebble Beach, or the way Ernie Els (wins number 2 and 5 for Woods), Davis Love III (number 3) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (number 4) toyed with Tiger during his historic run. This time, though, the catnip jumped up and killed the cat. Mickelson's win, the 14th of his nine-year Tour career, proved that Woods can't always win without his A game. More important, it preserved, perhaps for all time, Byron Nelson's record of 11 straight wins, set in 1945.
It was the streak, after all, that had golf fans everywhere longing to be on the cliffs of Torrey Pines, a two-course muni just up the shore from the pricey boutiques of La Jolla, Calif. By extending his streak on Monday, Feb. 7, at the rain-delayed AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Tiger gave this Buick a thousand-volt jump-start. Within hours of the dramatic finish at Pebble, the San Diego tournament was flooded with hundreds of media credential requests: a camera crew from the BBC; correspondents from The Christian Science Monitor and L'Equipe of France; a team of student journalists from the Feaster-Edison Charter School of Chula Vista, Calif. The most brazen came from a Beverly Hills talent agent seeking press passes for actors Dondr� T. Whitfield and Kelly Perine, who were in San Diego filming Invasion Y2K for Paramount. "They already have tickets," wrote the agent in a fax. "We're just trying to help them gain greater access to the action." Press coordinator Rick Schloss, who felt as if he were producing Invasion of the Media Hordes, banned the actors, welcomed the Brits, the French and the Christian Scientists, and even found room—on pro-am Wednesday only—for the Chula Vista kids. "This," he said, "is the biggest unplanned planned sporting event in the history of San Diego."
There was pageantry. When Woods, the defending champ, began his first round on the 10th tee of Torrey Pines North, spectators lined the fairway three deep all the way to the green. "That's the first time I've seen that on a Thursday," said a Tour official. For the rest of the tournament, cameramen with tripods raced to set up their equipment before Tiger putted. Photographers jockeyed for position. Fans took turns gawking through periscopes. It would have surprised no one if the MetLife blimp had descended to an altitude of 20 feet and followed Woods to the door of a porta-potty.
Tiger's response to the hoopla was to barely acknowledge it. "I've dealt with it before," he said. Still, it's hard to ignore a dozen boom mikes thrust into your face. Last Wednesday, when Tiger walked straight to the players' lunchroom after a press conference, a "we take you live to Torrey Pines" follow-up on it was already on TV. "They're blowing this thing way out of proportion," Woods said.
Were they, though? Sure, the streak was an artificial construct. Woods had skipped more Tour events than he had played in since winning the NEC Invitational last August, and he did not win the two unofficial tournaments he entered late last year. But if it was a streak unlike Nelson's—the great man won his 11 tournaments all in the same season, and he played in almost every event on the schedule—in some ways it was a streak that surpassed Lord Byron's. In 1945 America was at war, and pro golf was a home-front diversion played before small crowds for small purses. Today America is at play, and the life-and-death attention once given to generals and statesmen goes to sportsmen. To dominate now, as Woods has done, is Promethean or, to put it less loftily, just plain amazing. "He is creating more excitement in the game of golf, and all the players are beneficiaries," said Mickelson. "A lot of us are thanking him."
At Torrey Pines, as he had done the week before at Pebble, Tiger lurked before he leaped. He missed his first four fairways and greens on the North Course on Thursday and struggled to a one-under-par 71, six shots worse than Love, the first-round leader. On Friday, Woods played the easier South Course, the other track used in the tournament, and made the turn at even par. It looked as if he might miss only his second cut as a pro. Then he got serious and torched the back nine with a five-under 31. He was still six shots out, though, this time behind hometown favorite Mickelson, 1998 Presidents Cup star Maruyama and the pro in the bucket hat, Kirk Triplett.
The three leaders were given only provisional respect, for they seemed to be standing barefoot on a rattlesnake. "Let's talk about Tiger," Triplett joked to reporters after his second-round 64. "That's why I'm here." Maruyama, who shot a 64 of his own on Friday, was asked if he could stop Tiger. "No chance!" he answered. Even Notah Begay, who was two strokes ahead of his former Stanford teammate, said, "I know everybody's looking over his shoulder, except me. I can feel him."
Sure enough, Woods scooted up the leader board on Saturday with a 67 that could have been a 62. On several occasions he had his arm cocked for the fist pump, only to have a putt rim out or roll over the cellophane bridge. "They were burnin' the edge," he lamented.
Meanwhile, Mickelson had both his long game and his short game in sync and was looking like the player who from 1993 to '98 put together six straight seasons with at least one Tour win. He, too, shot a 67 and was the leader after three rounds—two better than Maruyama, three better than Love and six ahead of Woods and five others. Those with memories for such things noted that the first win in Tiger's streak—the '99 NEC Invitational—was by a single stroke over none other than Mickelson, who fired a final-round 65 to Tiger's cautious 71.