MoriartyApril 27, 2010

Collision Course

With Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson returning this week at Quail Hollow, the countdown to the U.S. Open has begun

Woods made it through his Wednesday Pro-Am and press conference without a hitch.

Woods made it through his Wednesday Pro-Am and press conference without a hitch.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was one more small step for Tiger Woods and one more giant leap for normalcy. Who would have thought it would be Masters champion Phil Mickelson who had all the problems?

In yet another non-event event, Woods managed to play a pro-am round at Quail Hollow GC without incident but under the watchful eye of a massive police presence, carried to the scene in all manner of conveyance -- cart, bicycle, Segway and by foot -- everything except an armored vehicle. Had it been possible to get an accurate count on the combined total of handcuffs, Tasers, batons, radios, earplugs, side arms and badges, it would have been the rough equivalent of the number of civilians following Woods from the crack of 7:30 a.m. Admittedly, by the end, it was closer to three times that number. There was one disturbance along the way. After Woods chipped in on the ninth hole, an unruly young man hollered from the shoulder-high perch of someone presumed to be his father, "Nice chip in, Tiger!" To which the new Woods replied, "Thanks, dude."

Mickelson, on the other hand, had to be carried off on his shield, scratched from the pro-am with a case of food poisoning. He was ill in his hotel overnight and gave himself the hook after five holes. He was treated for dehydration at the on-course medical center, reprising the role he played last year prior to the final round of the CA Championship at Doral.

Woods has taken to committing earlier to events these days -- Charlotte, next week's Players Championship and the AT&T National in July -- giving tournaments time to make over-the-top security arrangements and, apparently, solidifying the personal appearance/exotic dancing itinerary of at least one of Tiger's poorer choices who has taken to performing in a certain brand of club near another certain brand of club where Woods remains the undisputed headliner.

The post-Masters postmortem focused on how long Woods thought it would take for his golf game to round into shape. "Usually, after I come out of the West Coast Swing, I feel pretty good about my game," he said. "Usually two tournaments in the States and maybe one tournament overseas, so it's usually three events." With Woods committed for the Players next week that gets him to his three, even if he doesn't add the Memorial later in May, which he could yet well do.

This is the week U.S. Open preparation begins in earnest. In any year when the Open travels to one of the usual suspects in the Northeast or Midwest, Quail Hollow serves as a proper stylistic proxy. It has some brutally long par fours and is an old-style, tree-lined course. But, while there is little or nothing in North America that approximates Pebble Beach's fog, wind, cliffs and tiny poa greens, Quail Hollow can still serve as something of an Open tune-up because the two best players in the game, Woods and Mickelson, each see a prize on the near horizon with their names writ large on it and can't wait to get there.

Both have enjoyed considerable success at Pebble Beach, though defining Woods' 15-shot U.S. Open victory there in 2000 as "success" is a little like calling the Mona Lisa a pretty decent drawing. Mickelson has won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am three times and Woods won it the same year he turned the Open into a contest between himself and the B Flight.

In the coolness of time, Woods' pique at the end of his Augusta return has worn off. Looking back, it looks better. "Immediately after, they asked me how did I feel about it, and I wasn't very happy I lost," he said. If second "sucks", as he famously said, fourth is downright foul. "But, given a little time to reflect on it, it was an incredible week. I think it went as well as it could have possibly gone. Overall, after not playing for that long and coming back and finishing fourth, I think that's pretty reasonable." One senses, however, what looks reasonable in April won't be acceptable in June, no matter how much time he has to cool off.

There is considerable speculation, in almost every quarter, whether or not Woods' fall from grace will be accompanied by an equal diminishment of the aura of invincibility that so often surrounded him in competition. Are his peers more likely to step up now that he's been knocked down? Pebble could well be the first, best chance to see whether there's a new normal in golf's hierarchy.

When you've finished second five times in the U.S. Open, Grand Slams and green jackets, even one with fresh Krispy Kreme frosting on the sleeve, are sideshows. Despite feeling a little puny at the moment, Mickelson has his eye fixed on the Monterey Peninsula. "It's my National Open," he said. "Growing up here, that's a special event for me. Rather than jump ahead to other events, I really want to give myself the best opportunity in the U.S. Open. I had a good chance last year. A couple of years I've had great chances and haven't come through. It's the one event that I'd love to win."

If it's any consolation, and it probably isn't, there was another golfer who'd had some dispiriting collapses in U.S. Opens and wanted nothing more desperately than to win his own national championship. Tom Watson got his at Pebble Beach.