La Jolla, Calif.
The fix was in at Torrey Pines. How else do you explain the Sunday pairing of Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson (with apologies to Brad Faxon)? Only a week after the brouhaha over Mickelson’s “inferior equipment” remark, they end up going head-to-head.
Woods, in his first tournament since December knee surgery, dusted Lefty – and everyone else – with the greatest of ease. The folks at Wieden & Kennedy, the agency that creates Nike Golf ads, couldn’t have written a better script.
Can’t somebody arrange some selective outcomes at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, too? Anything but a showdown between Woods and Ernie Els, seemingly the only man on the planet who can give Tiger a game, will be a colossal disappointment.
But seriously, neither Arnold Rothstein (the gambler who manipulated the 1919 World Series) nor Charley Malloy (of “On the Waterfront” fame) could fix a PGA Tour event. Not one with Woods in the field. And especially not one with a match-play format.
If there’s a shootout on the horizon, it’s more likely to occur the week after the Match Play at the Dubai Desert Classic, or March 20-23 at the Bay Hill Invitational.
Which is fine with Woods. In their chase for the PGA Tour money title, which Els leads by a million bucks, Woods is content to bide his time.
“He plays a limited schedule, just as I do, so in essence we’re probably going to get about the same number of events, between 16 and 20 (by season’s end),” Woods said.
“So it’s not like he’s going to come out here and play 30 events on our Tour with me having no chance of catching him.”
Nevertheless, Woods is paying close attention to the Big Easy.
“Everybody makes a big deal of how far he’s hitting it,” Woods said. “You can hit it 400 yards but you’ve still got to make putts. He’s making every single putt inside 12 feet, and that’s what you have to do in order to win tournaments. You have to make those big putts.”
Defending champ Els has won twice at Dubai, where Woods finished second behind Thomas Bjorn in 2001. Woods said he’ll make the trip to the Emirates if the United States isn’t at war with Iraq. If Tiger goes, so will Ernie.
Woods will be gunning for his fourth consecutive victory at Bay Hill, where Els won in 1998, drumming Woods in a 36-hole final. Or maybe the showdown won’t come until The Players Championship. Woods won there in 2001, but Els never has been better than eighth.
In any case, their performances in those three events should stoke the fire for the Masters. Woods, of course, has won the last two at Augusta, with Els finishing tied for fifth and tied for sixth, respectively. Ernie got the better of him in 2000, finishing second to Vijay Singh while Woods was fifth.
Woods began Buick week with some concern about his knee and how it would stand up to the stress of competition. He also had to deal, for the first time publicly, with Mickelson’s shot at Nike.
Els, meanwhile, arrived in Perth for the Johnnie Walker Classic after a week’s vacation in Bali.
Woods blew through a rainy practice round that began at dawn Tuesday. After ripping one drive, he quipped: “Not bad for inferior equipment.”
The Wednesday pro-am was canceled because of rain, so the next Tiger sighting came at his press conference late that morning.
“We talked and we cleared the air,” Woods reported when quizzed about Mickelson. “Everything is fine and no worries.
“I thought it was Phil trying to be funny, and it didn’t come off right at all,” he said. “As we all know, Phil can be a smart aleck at times. I think that was one of those instances where it just backfired on him.”
The two finally met face-to-face that afternoon, outside the Torrey Pines locker room. The exchange was brief, with Mickelson basically saying, “Sorry about that” as they shook hands, and Tiger, unsmiling, replying: “Thanks. Don’t worry about it.”
That behind them, it was time to play golf. Woods had predicted he’d be rusty, and he was right.
“Yeah, he was rusty,” said Phil Tataurangi, who was paired with Woods on Thursday and Friday. “But he’s No. 1 in the world. His rust is a little different than the rest of us.”
Indeed, every time Woods appeared to be in trouble – which was often, by his standards – he muscled or finessed himself back into play. Whatever it took.
Els, meanwhile, was lighting it up in Australia. He was 8 under par after his first 10 holes.
“I must admit,” he said, “I was thinking some silly stuff there.” He finished with a 64, then his 65 Friday was good for a four-shot lead.
After 36 holes in California, including an overnight suspension of the first round, Woods was 8 under par and two shots off the lead.
“I’ll tell you what, it seemed like every time I missed the fairway today I made bogey,” said Arron Oberholser, who was tied with Woods at the halfway mark. “So when he’s shooting 66 and he can’t find Earth with his driver. . . . If he finds Earth this weekend with his driver or 3-wood, he’s going to be really hard to beat.“
Told how inconsistent Woods had been with his tee ball, Oberholser shook his head.
“So he hit nine fairways in two days and he’s 8 under par,” he said. “OK, that’s good. News flash. I mean, the rough is 5 inches, 6 inches in spots. The guy is a beast. He’s strong. He can maneuver his golf ball out of that rough. That’s impressive.”
Both Els and Woods were impressive down the stretch.
“I saw other guys making moves and felt I would have to play aggressively,” said Els, who shot 64 Saturday and increased his lead to nine shots, making his closing 66 merely academic.
As for Woods, “each and every day it got better,” he said. His only real problems came with the driver, and those were largely sorted out by Sunday.
“It’s just timing and trust,” Woods said of his errant tee balls. “You have to trust in it. Towards the end (Friday) I just said the hell with it – just get up there and hit it and let it go. If I snap it out of bounds, I snap it out of bounds. Go out there and at least make a good swing. And I started letting it go towards the end and I started hitting better shots.”
His short game, which he never stopped practicing during his eight-week rehab, was always there to bail him out. For instance, asked the yardage of his eagle chip (about 110 feet) that completed his second-round 66, Woods said: “I wouldn’t have a clue. It was a feel shot. There was a ball mark, and I tried to fly it over the ball mark.”
Tiger without a clue, just willing the ball into the hole. Ernie reporting that “the whole package is pretty good at the moment.”
When they do finally meet, there will be fireworks.
That, you can bet on.