Rivalry continues to fuel Woods, Mickelson

Tiger Woods has won five times this season, while Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship.

Tiger Woods has won five times this season, while Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship.

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. – It has been said there are two kinds of great champions: Long drivers who putt well and good iron players who putt well.

Both categories help explain the career success of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Each is long off the tee and among the best wielding an iron. Each is an excellent putter, albeit Mickelson has been streakier.

Both categories also help explain the current juicy state of the sport at the top rung, where Woods ranks first in the world and Mickelson second. They are power players who can get away with teeing off with 3-woods or less. As for putting (strokes gained), Woods ranks fourth on the PGA Tour, Mickelson eighth. In birdie average, they rank 1-2, with a slight edge to Mickelson.

Golf as an entertainment vehicle is never better than when Woods and Mickelson are hitting on all cylinders at the same time. And we have that delicious table setting now entering the PGA Championship at Oak Hill. Woods won the last tournament, the WGC-Bridgestone Championship, by seven strokes. Mickelson won the last major, the Open Championship, by three shots.

Both are highly confident at the moment. Both like difficult but fair Oak Hill. Both seem to bring the best out in each other. Both crave major titles.

Together they have created a rivalry that needs to be cherished while we still have it. Woods is 37, Mickelson 43. This won’t last that many more years.

The rivalry, like many in sports, is further fueled by this undercurrent: They aren’t the best of friends. And that is to be expected for two ultra-competitive, proud men who delight in beating each other.

Asked about their rivalry Tuesday, Woods discounted it by saying, “I actually battled Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) more times.” (Closer to the truth is this: Hank Haney, when he was Woods’ coach, used to say that the first score they’d look for after a Woods round was Mickelson’s.) This is the same Woods who, when asked at Muirfield about Mickelson’s closing 66 for Open victory, said this: “It (66) was out there.”

In other words, there was no tip of the cap.

Publicly, Mickelson is more willing to talk about their relationship and about the positive impact Woods has had on the game overall and on Mickelson’s game specifically. He says they have a “lot more fun together than I think is realized,” citing pingpong matches and bantering at Ryder and Presidents cups.

The teasing extended to Tuesday, when Mickelson was asked about Woods’ blowout victory Sunday. “I think that having Tiger win last week is great because I can’t remember the last time somebody won the week before a major and then went on and won,” he cracked, drawing laughter.

Woods’ influence, though, is no laughing matter.

Close to a decade ago at the Byron Nelson tournament in Irving, Texas, Mickelson told me that Woods’ dominance motivated him and made him practice more. He said that although he would never win as many tournaments as Woods in his career, he thought that if he improved enough he might be able to surpass Woods for a period of time.

“A lot of people consider him the best player in the world,” Mickelson said then. “If I start beating him, what would that make me?”

That was his carrot then and it’s his carrot now. In the last 10 years, Woods has won six majors, Mickelson five. And don’t think they are not counting.

“It’s just incredible what he’s accomplished with the number of wins, the number of majors and the consistency that he’s shown throughout his career,” Mickelson, more prone to compliments than his rival, said Tuesday. “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. He’s helped me work hard. He’s really brought the best out of me, especially when we’ve been paired together.”

He’s right about that.

Before 2007, Woods had a 10-5-3 record against Mickelson when paired in the same group. Since, Lefty leads 8-5-1 head-to-head and in final rounds is 5-0 with a 19-stroke advantage.

Little wonder then that Mickelson, thinking the same way as the golf viewer, says this: “I hope we are able to play together for many more years.”

They figure to battle for a few more years anyway. Woods, showing no signs of slowing down, probably has a good decade left. Mickelson could win more at an advanced age than most because of his immense skill, his feeling “as motivated as ever” and that long swing of his.

To hear Mickelson, he sounds more like 33 than 43.

“I feel as though I started to play my best golf in the last four or five or six months,” Mickelson said. “I’ve keyed in on the two areas that I’ve struggled with for years, which is putting and off the tee. I feel very confident in my ability to get the ball in play off the tee and very confident in my ability on the greens now.”

That figures to serve him well this week and in future majors. He’s the first to recognize that.

“I feel like now the major championships are possibly the easiest ones for me to be in contention and maybe even win because of those weaknesses becoming strengths,” Mickelson said.

We’ve noticed. And so has Tiger Woods.

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