The New York Times published a column Sunday with a headline that sounded like a dispatch from the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Alas, The Front-Runner’s Missing Magic turned out to be about another front-runner.
But watching Tiger Woods falter on a Sunday once again was a reminder that for all the predictions he is this close to climbing back on top, the golf world is still upside down.
For years, Woods waxing the over-hyped Phil Mickelson was what passed for competition atop the PGA Tour. When Mickelson was even close enough to be paired with Woods on the final day of a tournament, you could pretty much count on Woods doing his relentless, almost robotic winning thing while Mickelson made some daring, high-risk play that blew up in his face and sent him careening down the leader board.
But a funny thing happened as the two golf prodigies became tour veterans. Mickelson has found his game and Woods has lost his. Tiger won his first major at age 21. Lefty, perennially disappointing early in his career, didn’t win his first until he was 33.
When they showed up at Pebble Beach on Sunday to finish this year’s Pro-Am, Woods had 14 major championships, second only to Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson had four — not much of a rivalry if you remember the days of Nicklaus (18 majors), Gary Player (9), Tom Watson (8), Arnold Palmer (7) and Lee Trevino (6).
So it might have surprised casual fans to know that while Woods has won three tournaments while paired with Mickelson in the final round and Mickelson only one, Lefty had outplayed Tiger the previous four times they’d been paired on the final day of a tournament, as they were again Sunday. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am is not a major, of course, but the course is in the U.S. Open rotation, so it’s a pretty fair measuring stick. In fact, Woods won the Open there in 2000.
The decline of Woods since 2008, when he last won a major, has been the stuff of supermarket tabloids. His marriage to a Swedish model, Elin Nordegren, fell apart amid spectacular revelations of Woods’ serial infidelity. Tiger apologized, got divorced, underwent knee surgery, fired his swing coach, fired his caddie.
In stark, almost too obvious contrast, Mickelson was simultaneously at the center of a sorrowful, heartwarming family tale as both his mother, Mary, and wife, Amy, were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. When he won the 2010 Masters with the recovering Amy on hand, there was hardly a dry eye in Augusta.
“That’s a win for the family,” Jim Nantz of CBS said when Lefty holed out.
Fast forward to Sunday. Supposedly, Tiger was finally back. He had put up three consecutive rounds in the 60s for the first time in more than two years. He entered the final round four shots back of leader Charlie Wi, but as Wi imploded, the door opened.
Instead, Woods stumbled, as he has so often on Sundays lately when he has been in a position to contend. He finished with a 75.
Mickelson charged, holing putts from long distance and posting an eight-under 64 that gave him the tournament title, his 40th on the PGA tour.
“I just feel very inspired when I play with him,” Mickelson told reporters afterward. “He brings out some of my best golf. I hope that he continues to play better and better, and I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more.”
No wonder. It’s now five consecutive times Mickelson has bested Woods when they’ve played together on a Sunday.
Looking ahead to the year in which he turns 42, Mickelson predicted there might be more wins out there waiting for him. Woods, five years younger, is still waiting for that feeling to return.
Lefty will never catch Tiger by the numbers, but the rivalry that never really was has finally become a pretty good show.