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Tiger Woods - Phil Mickelson rivalry heats back up in major way

By Ron Green Jr.

PITTSFORD, N.Y. On Sunday afternoon, Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green at Firestone Country Club with his 4-year-old son Charlie in his arms, his 79th career victory in his pocket and the same question staring him in the face:

When, if ever, will he win his 15th career major championship?

It has been five-plus years since his last major win, the 2008 U.S. Open, and this marks the fourth anniversary since Woods kicked away the 2009 PGA Championship, shooting 75 on Sunday to lose a tournament he led after each of the first three rounds.

Y.E. Yang won that day, the only time Woods has lost a major championship when he took the lead into the final round. The aura of invincibility ended that day.

Since that Sunday, Woods has not taken the lead into the final round of a major championship. He’s been close. But that’s all he’s been.

He had a share of the 36-hole lead at the PGA Championship last year at Kiawah Island, S.C. He had a share of the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open last year. A fluky bounce off a flagstick spoiled the Masters for him in April. At the British Open Championship three weeks ago, he started the final round two shots behind.

Asked Tuesday if capturing a 15th major championship is proving to be the toughest of them all, Woods – who won the 1997 Masters in his first professional start in a major – didn’t argue the point.

“It kind of seems that way,” he said.

Then there is Phil Mickelson, who in winning the British Open last month with his Sunday 66, transformed his season and his legacy while bringing the Woods-Mickelson rivalry back into focus.

At Muirfield, Mickelson did what Woods has been unable to do – own Sunday at a major.

Woods hasn’t broken 70 on the weekend of a major championship since he shot 67 in the final round of the 2011 Masters. He has been accused of becoming too conservative on weekends, but it’s difficult to generate momentum without holing putts.

Three-putts – 13 of them in the final rounds of his past 13 majors – have been like dry rot to his chances, which may explain why he talked putting with Steve Stricker for a time Monday afternoon.

The Woods-Mickelson rivalry has always been more about personalities than results. Woods has won nearly twice as many PGA Tour events and nine more major championships than Mickelson, and though they have been the dominant players of their generation, they have a limited history of head-to-head duels, particularly in major championships.

Woods completed the “Tiger Slam” by winning the Masters in 2001 with Mickelson playing beside him in the final pairing. They lit up the front nine together on Sunday at the 2009 Masters, but Angel Cabrera won the green jacket.

Tiger got Phil at Doral (Fla.) in 2005. Phil got Tiger at the Deutsche Bank Championship two years later. Phil got Tiger at Pebble Beach in 2011.

All these years, we’ve imagined the great Tiger-Phil Sunday shoot-out at a major, their version of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at the British Open at Turnberry in 1977. We’re still waiting.

Asked Tuesday about his rivalry with Mickelson, Woods said he’s actually had more duels with Vijay Singh and Ernie Els over the years. True, but Woods gives ground grudgingly, especially when the subject is Mickelson.

Then there was Phil on the subject of Tiger.

“Certainly my record doesn’t stand up to what he’s done in the game,” Mickelson said. “It’s just incredible what he’s accomplished with the number of wins (79), the number of majors (14) and the consistency he’s shown through his career.

“But in the last five or six years, I’ve had some pretty good success head-to-head and I feel like he brings out the best golf in me. He’s a great motivator for me.”

Over the past month, they’ve put the lightning in golf’s summer sky, first with Mickelson at Muirfield, then with Woods flirting with 59 at Firestone. At times like these, the game as they play it is enthralling to watch.

While Woods chases Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, Mickelson is now chasing the career Grand Slam, needing to finally conquer the U.S. Open to do it. Mickelson still plays aggressively but with tweaks. He’s so confident in his strong 3-wood off the tee, he won’t carry a driver at Oak Hill this week, and he believes he can make putts again.

“I feel as though I’ve started to play my best golf the last four or five or six months,” Mickelson said. “I’ve turned weaknesses into strengths, I believe, and this serves me well in major championships.”

The question is where they will be Sunday afternoon.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.
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