WORLD NO. 1 TIGER
WOODS VS. WORLD NO. 2 LEFTY MICKELSON
A PAIR OF HEAVYWEIGHTS WHO JUST DON'T LIKE EACH OTHER SQUARE OFF FOR THE TOP
PRIZE IN GOLF
$6.25 MILLION PURSE
At a long ago
Masters, when Tiger Woods was just an intriguing amateur prospect and Phil
Mickelson a hotshot young pro who was being billed as the Next Nicklaus, Woods
sneaked an SI reporter into the Crow's Nest, the tiny dormitory perched atop
the Augusta National clubhouse. Tiger was monitoring the Masters telecast when
Mickelson flashed onto the screen. Employing a putting stroke that was much too
long and loose for the slippery greens, Mickelson characteristically charged a
putt past the hole. As the ball trickled farther and farther from the cup,
Woods offered only one word of commentary: "Roll."
The antipathy was born on the playing fields of junior golf. Tiger and Phil
grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles
but linked by their talent--both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by
5 1/2 years, Mickelson loomed over Woods's early golfing life. "Phil was an
icon to us," says one of Tiger's friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, now
in his eighth year on the PGA Tour.
Woods's father, Earl, received most of the credit for his son's competitive
spirit, but it was his mom, Tida, who sharpened Tiger's killer instinct. With
her it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was
considered not just a competitor but also a threat. So as Woods chased
Mickelson's numerous junior records in the 1980s, he was imbued with a certain
disdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.
All these years
later Tiger and Phil are once again measuring themselves against each other.
After fans pined for almost a decade, a bona fide rival for Woods has finally
emerged, and it turns out to be the same guy Tiger pursued, and surpassed, long
ago. Now that Mickelson has raised his game to Woods's level, the dynamics of
their complicated relationship have changed yet again. To say Phil and Tiger
don't like each other misses all the nuance. Theirs is akin to a sibling
rivalry, replete with name-calling and childish feuds, but ultimately each
knows that he is stuck with the other and they're better off just trying to get
along. Especially these days. After all the talk about a Big Five--Woods,
Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen--golf's plotlines have been
simplified. Only two players matter now. Woods, 30, and Mickelson, 35, are the
biggest talents and most compelling personalities, and at last they have the
chance to push their sport to new heights.
Next week Tiger
and Phil will storm New York for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in
suburban Mamaroneck. Expect the same kind of hysteria that greeted King Kong as
he lumbered toward the Empire State Building. "The sport has always needed
superstars competing against each other in its biggest events--from Snead and
Hogan to Jack and Arnold," says Tour sage Jeff Sluman, a 24-year veteran.
"Right now, with Tiger and Phil, this is fantastic stuff. It would be
awesome to see those two guys going at it down the stretch at Winged Foot. I
think the golf world would relish that."
What makes a
potential showdown at Winged Foot even more intriguing is that the last Open to
be played in the shadow of Gotham, at Bethpage in 2002, was a defining
tournament for both players. Woods's win put the finishing touches on one of
the most dominant stretches in sports history--it was his seventh major
championship in 11 tries. Mickelson fought gamely at Bethpage, but as had been
his habit, he blew it in the end, bogeying the 16th and 17th holes on Sunday to
finish second by three strokes, to that point his 16th top 10 in a major
without a victory.
The '02 Open
launched Mickelson's cult of personality, as the raucous crowds embraced him in
a lovefest that had as much to do with fatigue with Woods's dominance as
Mickelson's virtues. Mickelson was jazzed by the reception but not content to
settle for being a lovable loser. Bethpage finally crystallized for him that
his freewheeling, go-for-broke game was not good enough against Woods's
ruthless efficiency. "I need to lower the score that I set [as a
pretournament goal]," Mickelson said following his final-round 70, which
left him even par for the tournament. "Heading in, I thought even par would
be an incredible score for four rounds. I was able to accomplish that. I have
to lower that number if I'm going to win tournaments with Tiger in the field.
I'm starting to realize that, and I've got to continue to work harder in all
areas of my game to compete at the highest level."
Now, having won
three of the last nine majors, Mickelson has flipped the script on Woods. Just
as they have passed the green jacket back and forth at the last three
Masters--recalling the glory years when Nicklaus and Palmer combined to win
five straight, from 1962 to '66--Phil and Tiger seem to have swapped
By the time he
arrives at Winged Foot, Woods will have played only one tournament in the
preceding 11 weeks as he has dealt with the death of his father on May 3.
Tiger's once unimpeachable game now comes accompanied by a murmur of concern:
Where's his head? Will he be able to find the narrow fairways? Can he fix his
putting stroke after a disastrous display at Augusta?