Tiger, Phil and the major rivalry that never emerged

By Joe PosnanskiJuly 19, 2016, 10:00 pm

There's a quirky statistic that I want to show you, but first I need to say this: Please don't look at the stat and immediately pound out some wild email screed about my sanity. You can feel free to do that after reading the point, but in this case I would ask your forbearance and at least wait a couple of paragraphs before calling me a loon.

OK, here's the statistic:

Top 3s in a major championship:

  • Tiger Woods, 24
  • Phil Mickelson, 23

(This lunatic is actually comparing Mickelson to Woods. Um, last I checked Woods had 14 major championships and Mickelson had like five. This guy isn’t really comparing these guys, is he? Where is the comment section? What is this guy’s email?)

OK, wait, please. There is a point to be made here, a fairly interesting one I think, and it is not a suggestion that Mickelson’s career is close to Woods’ career. Their careers are not especially close for all the obvious reasons – major championships, PGA Tour victories, scoring averages, etc. and so forth and so on and yadda yadda yadda.

But …

Mickelson is one of the 10 or 15 greatest players in history. Brandel Chamblee came up with an interesting top-15 list on Twitter, pairing Tiger and Jack on top, following them with a Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan exacta, and then going with some early stars of the sport (Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Harry Vardon), some golfers who starred in the ‘40s and ‘50s (Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke) and some more from the 1960s and ‘70s (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino). Then he came to Mickelson at No. 15.*

*Quick aside: Whenever people try to rank athletes in golf or baseball, they tend to have a strong bias against more recent athletes. I think that is because these are the two sports that connect most strongly with history. In baseball, modern players can never match up to ancient stars like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson.  On Brandel’s list, only two of the 15 were born since 1950 while six players were born more than 100 years ago.

But getting back to it, let’s just say that Mickelson is the 15th best player in the game’s history – that seems reasonable. And let’s say that Woods and Nicklaus are tied for the top. That’s also reasonable.

Well, what’s the difference between Mickelson’s career and Woods’ career? What’s the difference between being one of the greatest ever and the greatest ever?

OK, now, look at that statistic above one more time. In their very different careers, Mickelson and Woods finished top 3 in almost exactly the same number of major championships.

Woods put himself in position to win 24 times. He won four of seven at Augusta; four of six at the U.S. Open; three of five at The Open, and four of six at the PGA. Look at those percentages.

Mickelson put himself in position to win 23 times. He won three of nine at the Masters, zero of six at the U.S. Open, one of four at The Open, and one of four at the PGA.

That’s it. That’s the difference between great and legendary, between terrific and unparalleled. Woods closed. Mickelson faltered. Woods was rarely challenged. Mickelson ran into players who found their best at the right moment. Woods’ crucial putts dropped. And Mickelson’s, so often, lipped out.

Just look at Mickelson’s 11 second-place finishes: Payne Stewart made a putt at Pinehurst. David Toms got up and down from the fairway at Atlanta Athletic Club. Woods ran away from Mickelson at Bethpage. Mickelson three-putted from 5 feet at Shinnecock. Mickelson lost his mind on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. Mickelson’s putting went south down the stretch at Bethpage, Part II. Mickelson went on an ill-timed bogey run at Royal St. George’s. Mickelson could not hold on to a lead at Merion. Rory McIlroy was one shot too good at Valhalla. Jordan Spieth ran away from Mickelson at the Masters.

And then on Sunday, at Troon, Mickelson at age 46 played the final round of his life, a bogey-free 65 that was so remarkable and wonderful that it reminded again and again of Nicklaus’ final round at Augusta in ’86.

And the guy playing with him, Henrik Stenson, a 40-year-old star who had spent a decade or so building up his “best player to never win a major” credentials, played even better. I think it might be the greatest final round in major championship history. Johnny Miller’s extraordinary 63 at Oakmont in 1973 has long been considered the best closing round ever, and it should be: Only five players that day broke 70.

But Miller was playing relatively pressure free golf, at least early in the round. He began the day six shots back, in 13th place. He knew he had to go out there and shoot low, and he birdied the first four holes, and began to realize that this might be a magical day. He tied for the lead by the 13th hole. There was extreme pressure, no doubt, but it was basically a wild comeback and a miraculous day.

Stenson, meanwhile, had to sleep on the lead at The Open. He bogeyed the very first hole to lose that lead. Then he had to play a virtual match play against one of the legends of golf at his very best. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but Stenson’s extraordinary round certainly ranks with anyone’s in the long history of the game.

And it left Mickelson second again. That’s was the 11th time; Tiger Woods finished second just six times. Mickelson also has more third-place finishes than Woods (7 to 4).

Why? Why was Woods almost always the guy wearing the green jacket or lifting the trophy while Mickelson’s career has been marked by the close calls, the tournaments he lost and the ones that were taken away?

It’s hard to figure. We can paper over it and just say that Woods was more clutch, but that’s a vague and imprecise answer. Would Woods have found a way to beat Stenson on Sunday? Or – and maybe this is the same question – would Stenson have not played that well if he was paired with an in-his-prime Woods? Interesting and unanswerable questions, both.

Mickelson’s career shape is obviously very different from Woods’. Here’s another quirky statistic:

Major championships by age 33:

  • Tiger Woods: 14
  • Phil Mickelson: 0

Major championships after age 33:

  • Tiger Woods: 0
  • Phil Mickelson: 5

So, we see that Woods was a force of nature unlike anyone. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs and was Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year before he won his first professional major. He won the Masters by 12 shots just months after turning pro, and he won four major championships in a row after he honed his swing (earning his second Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award), and he so utterly dominated the sport for a decade that he left the greatest players in the world defeated.

Mickelson, meanwhile, grew into himself. He was a phenom too, a U.S. Amateur champ, the last amateur to win a PGA Tour event. But that didn’t suit his personality. His magical touch around the green prompted him to try impossible – and stupid – shots. His aggressive nature pressed him to shoot for the flag when the middle of the green was the winning play. For a while, it seemed like he would show up at every major with a new strategy, a new lifestyle, a new club, a new mantra. Sometimes he would leave the driver at home. Sometimes he would use two different drivers. There was chaos clanging around in that mind.

But as he got older he found his speed. That long and easy swing of Mickelson’s held up while the violence of Tiger’s swing tore up his back and knees. Mickelson at 46 just played perhaps his best-ever major championship – he will contend again. Woods at 40, well, who knows?

The shame of the Woods-Mickelson rivalry is that it never really was a rivalry. They never quite got the timing down. It was a blast to watch Mickelson and Stenson have their own Duel in the Sun (“High Troon,” I like to call it) but it reminded that we never really had that sort of hole-by-hole, birdie vs. birdie battle between Woods and Mickelson. We never got those two against each other at their best. Yes, the smart money would have been on Woods. Still: It would have been fun to watch.

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

Getty Images

Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

Getty Images

Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.