Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tiger-Phil 'rivalry' finally lives up to the hype (kind of)


Finally, Sunday afternoon, the network execs at CBS got exactly what they wanted.

Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson. Going head to head on the back nine for a major championship.

Well, kind of.

But first, let's backtrack for a minute...

Anyone who follows golf even a little bit — or knows who Tiger Woods is — is aware that there is no one on the PGA Tour with his resume, no modern golfer who will ever be considered on the same level as Woods.

However, that doesn't mean that people haven't tried to create a rival, doing something to spike interest in the sport. (As if watching likely the greatest golfer of all time isn't enough.)

Some "recruits" for this position have come and passed. There was David Duval, who famously flamed out years ago. There was the young, inflammatory Sergio Garcia, who gave Woods one good challenge — and lost. There have been a couple others.

But the one name that has always been linked to Woods since he more than "burst onto the scene" at the 1997 Masters is Mickelson.

Why? Well, Phil is a likable guy. And he's a great talent. Not a Tiger talent, but a talent capable of great things. He proved that early on with his knack for making impossible chip shots seem routine.

He was the perfect guy to be Bird as Tiger acts Magic.

So, thus, a rivalry was born. Except that it really wasn't.

And instead of Bird-Magic, we've gotten more like Shaq-Chris Webber.

Yeah, you get the point.

Don't get me wrong — Mickelson has had his moments. He finally won his first major at the '03 Masters, after Woods had accumulated eight, and has since added another Green Jacket and a PGA championship.

But he is C-Webb while Woods is O'Neal.

And besides the difference in championships and personal accomplishments (O'Neal has four NBA titles and an MVP, Webber has none of either), what else stands out about the two No. 1 draft picks?

Well, nothing. They battled back and forth in one great Western Conference finals playoff series in 2001, which was won by O'Neal and the Lakers. Besides that, no rivalry.

That, basically, is what the connection between Woods and Mickelson was before Sunday afternoon at August. Believe it or not, it's the truth.

The major networks would have you thinking otherwise, considering the hype they give to the world's top two golfers — although Mickelson hasn't always been No. 2 during Woods' reign atop the sport— before every major.

There's always talk about a final pairing on Sunday featuring the two of them. The talking heads love to romance about the possibility of a Tiger-Phil head-to-head battle.

Yet, that was never really the case until Sunday.

At the 2002 U.S. Open, Mickelson was the runner-up behind Woods. But he finished three strokes back of him and wasn't even in the final group with him.

And in golf, there can't really be a "rivalry" on the course unless the golfers are paired together, walking the 18 holes alongside each other and watching each other's every single shot.

Finally, Sunday, that came to fruition.

And Woods and Mickelson put on quite the show. They both began the round at 4-under par, a whopping seven shots behind the leaders. They played about five holes ahead of said leaders.

Mickelson didn't waste any time in playing himself into contention, setting a Masters record for the final round by shooting 30 on the front nine. Woods didn't have his touch early, but he got himself into consideration with an eagle on the eighth hole.

And, waddya know, by the time they made the turn, there was a mob of fans the size of a small country following them — the guys atop the leader board be damned.

I don't blame the fans one bit. They were watching the world's top two golfers playing near the top of their games.

If only it had lasted.

The story had far from a perfect ending. "Lefty" got within a shot of the lead only to hit an awful tee shot into the water at the par-3 12th and miss two short putts down the stretch. Woods couldn't knock in a putt longer than 10 feet all day and killed any last chance he had by whacking his approach shot into a tree on the 18th.

Soon thereafter, Woods and Mickelson's day on the course was complete — with Phil finishing a shot better but still three back of the leaders.

And for a minute at least, I felt like turning off the TV. I felt like all the adrenaline had left the tournament.

Of course I didn't do that, and ended up viewing quite a hectic, dramatic finish that ended with Angel Cabrera winning his second major in a two-hole playoff.

But the excitement on the course, in the gallery, was never more palpable than during the height of Woods and Mickelson's attack on Augusta.

It was a taste of what a "rivalry" could actually be like.

Not that I'm calling it that at this point.


Libby said...

I would completely agree-Tiger is on a playing field all his own. Sure he was knocked down for a little bit following injury, but good 'ole Tiger will roar again. No doubt.

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