Pardon the clich�, but when Phil Mickelson came to Atlanta, he came to play. First as Disco Man—in a white suit, white shoes and gold chains—for Halloween trick-or-treating with Disco Woman (wife Amy) and the Butterfly Princess (15-month-old daughter Amanda). Then at the Tour Championship, a $5 million reward for the Tour's top 30 money winners at Bobby Jones's old track, East Lake Golf Club, where Mickelson looked more like Tiger Woods than Tiger himself.
Who charged out of the gate on Sunday with four birdies on the front nine? Who shot the low score (66) on the final day? Who overpowered the par-5s with length and deadly putting? Who played mistake-free golf while parring East Lake's three closing holes, three of the toughest pars you'll find on Tour? No, not the all-powerful Tiger. It was Disco Man. Nice disguise, Phil.
We would be raving about Mickelson's year—the Tour Championship was his fourth victory of 2000—if Woods hadn't racked up 17 wins, including the last three majors, in 1999-2000. So instead we'll rave about how Mickelson is the only earthling to take clown Woods twice this year.
Did somebody say Tiger needs a rival? Forget David Duval, Sergio Garcia and any more of those Monday-night Battles at Wherever. As for Ernie Els, this year's second banana in the majors, call him a cab. Mickelson is the man for this job. Last February he outplayed Woods down the stretch at the Buick Invitational, ending Tiger's six-tournament winning streak. Now Mickelson can also say that he and Ed Fiori are the only players to whip Woods by coming from behind. (Tiger, though, is still an amazing 20-2 when he has led or been tied for the lead after 54 holes.) True, the slow-moving World Ranking still lists Mickelson as No. 3, behind Woods and Els, but in a world in which perceptions count, he is clearly perceived as the Best Player Without an Animal Nickname.
Funny how outdueling Woods turned the Tour Championship into a significant event. Due to its early-November dates, absurdly big purse ( Jim Furyk got $80,000 in last-place cash last week even though, because of a wrist injury, he didn't show up) and the malaise of the over-golfed pros, the Tour Championship has usually been more snoozeworthy than newsworthy. Too many fat and happy players have showed up with rusty blades, Mickelson among them. He hadn't finished better than 12th in seven previous Tour Championships. "I never really prepared for these last few events, and I wanted to put a stop to that," he says. "This is the first time I spent two or three weeks before this tournament working on playing well."
The results were obvious. Mickelson bounced back from a six-week break to finish second in Las Vegas a month ago, star for the U.S. in the Presidents Cup, then top runner-up Woods as well as Els, Nick Price and Vijay Singh, who all tied for third, at East Lake. Part of Mickelson's motivation was to finish second on the money list, even though he trailed Woods by $5 million, a gap he couldn't have closed with a winning lotto ticket. "Every year I would come to this tournament and drop a few spaces on the money list," Mickelson said. "I didn't want to come here and lose ground again."
Winning carried a $900,000 prize and clinched No. 2 for Mickelson, whose 13-under 267 gave him a two-stroke victory. He planned to skip this week's season-ending American Express Championship at Valderrama in Sotogrande, Spain, and head home to Scottsdale, Ariz. "I want to hang up my clubs for a while and get into the holiday season," he said.
Woods already seems to have the Christmas spirit. In position to win two weeks in a row, he uncharacteristically failed to come through on both occasions. Duffy Waldorf dusted him at Disney World with a closing 62. Mickelson prevailed when Woods, struggling with his swing, failed to birdie East Lake's par-5 15th on Sunday, a hole he had eagled two days earlier, and then bogeyed the 17th when his fairway bunker shot flew so far left, it nearly went swimming.
"If he had putted even halfway decent, he would've won [the Disney]," says Steve Flesch, who was paired with Woods for the final two rounds that week. "He three-putted three par-5s on the weekend. It was funny. I was two shots ahead of him with three or four holes left, and people were yelling, 'C'mon, Steve, stay with him.' People don't expect anybody to beat him—and with good reason."
Yes, Woods is human. His kryptonite is a swing flaw: Sometimes his lower body fires out too soon on the forward swing, leaving the club "stuck," as he calls it, behind his right hip. The result is a shot either blocked right or pulled left. The fierce bermuda rough at East Lake made missing fairways a losing proposition. That Woods shot 66-69 on the weekend despite hitting only 57% of the fairways was a testament to his ability to score. "It's the same as always," Woods said of his flaw. "I couldn't get it out of my swing this week."