For all the intrigue generated by some fresh faces in golf the past couple of years, nothing injects life into a season like an old-fashioned Tiger-Phil duel.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods reprised their long-standing rivalry with another final-round pairing at Pebble Beach on Sunday, and the result was as predictable as it was shocking.
While the odds would have been astronomical had you bet on Mickelson smashing Woods by 11 strokes in a brilliant rally from six shots off the lead to win for the 40th time in his Hall of Fame career, you could easily have guessed the kind of energy the matchup would produce.
Television ratings for the annual celebrity pro-am rocketed to 5.1 – nearly double last year’s numbers and the highest for the ol’ Crosby Clambake in the 15 years since Mark O’Meara held off Woods and David Duval just two months before Woods’ record-breaking victory in the 1997 Masters Tournament. It peaked with 8.4 million viewers and averaged 7.4 million – the most watched final round for a non-major since Woods won at Torrey Pines in 2008.
While everybody seems quick to draw conclusions from Sunday’s duel – in which Mickelson looked like his vintage self in a bogey-free 64 that seemed to come out of nowhere, and Woods looked a shadow of his former glory in yipping his way to 75 – the only sure thing to come out of the showdown is some pre-Masters buzz.
Mickelson and Woods have collected seven of the past 15 green jackets presented and are traditionally locks to be in the mix every April on a course they routinely play better than anyone else. Even when they haven’t walked away with the prize, they’re rarely out of the mix on Sunday.
Now their rivalry has taken on a whole new dimension in 2012. In some ways, they are golf’s comeback kids – even though they are far from being kids any more.
Mickelson’s performance Sunday at age 41 has eased doubts of his game being in inexorable decline. He’s dealt with enough off-course distraction the past two seasons regarding his wife’s cancer as well as his own arthritis that hit him shortly after winning the 2010 Masters. Some critics have gone so far as to write him off as an aging star that has ceded the stage to a new generation of gifted players.
But Mickelson’s unpredictability has always been one of his most intriguing traits. He might miss the cut this week at Riviera or he might get on the kind of roll that nobody in the world, including Woods, is capable of stopping. When he’s making putts like he did Sunday, his high-wire act is magnificent. And like the man he’s most compared to, Arnold Palmer, Mickelson likes the even years at Augusta and could easily tie the King and Tiger with a fourth green jacket in April.
As good as Mickelson was Sunday, Woods was awful. He seemed to be poised to break out of a two-year funk with his first official tour victory since 2009. But his putter let him down again, missing three times inside of three feet. When it mattered, he dropped a shot to Mickelson on six consecutive holes from 4 through 9. It was the fifth time in a row he’s lost to Mickelson when they’ve played together.
Be careful making judgments. Based on his lethargic demeanor and pace and the frequency of his visits to the port-a-potties on Sunday, there was a great suspicion from the media in attendance that Woods wasn’t at full strength (though he predictably denied it after the round).
Woods is showing great improvement, but he still has something to prove in the coming months as he tries to regain his standing as a closer. In a season when no lead seems safe on Sundays, Woods is no different than his inexperienced peers. In many ways, it’s more entertaining than the days when victory was a robotic impulse for him when he reached for the red shirt in his wardrobe.
But Woods is not alone in his quest to find his old self and be ready for Augusta. The next six weeks are set for the most dynamic Masters qualifying spree in memory.
Among the bubble players seeking a top-50 invitation at the conclusion of Bay Hill are two of the biggest major players for more than a decade – Retief Goosen and Ernie Els.
Goosen, who hasn’t missed the Masters since 1999 and finished second or third in Augusta four times, is currently clinging to the 50th spot. Els, a Masters regular for 18 years since 1994, has to make up significant ground from No. 65 and might have to get through the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood or Rory McIlroy in the first round of next week’s WGC Match Play to ignite a charge.
The South African pair with five major wins between them aren’t the only intriguing hopefuls on the Masters watch list. Resurgent Scotsman Paul Lawrie, the 1999 British Open winner, leaped into the top 50 with a victory in Qatar and ranks 45th. Japanese superstar Ryo Ishikawa is outside looking in at No. 53. Italian teenager Matteo Manassero is lurking at No. 61. Recent Euro Tour upset winners Robert Rock (who beat Tiger in Abu Dhabi) and Rafael Cabrera-Bello (who rallied past Westwood in Dubai) are ranked 58th and 60th. A couple of guys who won back-to-back in their native countries – Greg Chalmers in Australia and Branden Grace in South Africa – are still in need of another big score to earn Augusta bids.
At this stage of the season, everything points to Augusta and the focus gets bigger with each advancing week. Phil and Tiger just lit the fuse a little early with a West Coast preview of what’s to come.