March 16, 2009

The Tiger And Phil Show--Again

Once again, Lefty is Tiger Woods' one potential rival

Here we go again, Tiger and Phil. It doesn't take much—in the current installment, Mickelson has notched a couple of early-season wins while Woods has simply shown up—and it's on.

Steve Williams never had to utter a word. These two can't make a public comment that mentions the other without every syllable parsed for passive aggression, and Mickelson in particular seems to enjoy tapping the trip wire. After his second-round 66 at the WGC-CA Championship put him 10 shots ahead of Woods, he offered that "It kind of sucks" because "I would love to get back for [their classic back-nine duel won by Woods in] '05." Mickelson may or may not have made amends later when he quickly defused any talk of potentially taking over the No. 1 position on the World Ranking by calling Woods, "the greatest player of all time." Probably not.

Of course, the verbiage is only relevant because of this: When all is said and done, it is Mickelson who possesses qualities more formidable than any of Woods' other challengers. He's a big man with soft hands, and that most classic of athletic advantages (more apparent now that he is getting himself into better shape) has been on full display as he has taken it deep at both Riviera and Doral. More significantly, despite an admittedly "not pretty" pattern of turning otherwise dominating performances into cliffhangers, Mickelson's 36 career victories by definition give him a formidable record as a closer.

Mickelson always has been carried by a Seve/Crenshaw/Watson caliber short game and putter. His four chip-ins at Doral were the latest example, and while his putting has been used as the scapegoat for the last two majorless seasons, Mickelson in the second half of his 30s has become one of the game's cleanest and most reliable short putters.

Where Mickelson continues to lack, and where Woods is farthest ahead of him, is in ball control. Even in finishing tied for ninth at Doral, Woods' ball-striking superiority was evident as he seemed to revel in his rediscovered ability to hit a wide variety of shots—and very straight drives—on a healthy knee. Even in full flight, Mickelson retains the propensity for looseness that undoes his best work. At Doral he even conceded that, "I'm not going to play 18 holes flawless. Never have."

Tightening his action and his shot dispersion was the goal when Mickelson left Rick Smith to work with Butch Harmon two years ago. While acknowledging that he is "surprised it took this long," Mickelson claims he finally has begun to feel natural with a swing that he says is shorter and faster, but which a lot of close-eyed observers say doesn't look any different. But frankly, the defining moment of his recent resurgence might have been when, after losing his lead at Riviera on the back nine, he abandoned all swing thoughts and told himself, "Screw it, let's go, let's hit it," pounding a series of majestic power shots to seize the victory.

Mickelson continued the theme at Doral. "I'm just standing there and ripping it," he said. "It's fun because I feel like I'm playing without fear of the big miss." He should be praised for "manning up" and overcoming bad memories of Winged Foot and other tournaments by hitting the fairway on Doral's demanding 72nd hole with a one-shot lead. But for the most part both Riviera and Doral no longer present a difficult driving test for a modern long hitter. Mickelson's most impressive victory under Harmon remains his first one, at the 2007 Players, where on a tight course he drove the ball with uncharacteristic precision. The real question is will he be able to rip it fearlessly at the Masters, where accurate driving has taken on more of a premium, not to mention in the U.S. Open at the ultra-narrow Bethpage Black, where a little miss off the tee might as well be a big miss?

It is the majors that matter more than ever to Woods and Mickelson, who hasn't seriously contended in one since Winged Foot. Whereas Woods prepares like a student who does his homework every night, Mickelson—with his shot charts and marathon practice rounds—tends to cram. It's a tougher way to retain the vital information, but when Mickelson has been locked in—as he was in winning three majors between 2004 and 2006, and as he appears to be at the moment—he's the man most likely to beat Woods.