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Phil's long ride in the top 50 coming to an end?

By John AntoniniJanuary 31, 2018, 1:30 pm

Phil Mickelson took a two-week trip to Japan in November 1993, ostensibly to play in a few golf tournaments, but ultimately it was the beginning of an incredible 24-year stretch.

Mickelson finished eighth in the Dunlop Phoenix event and followed that with a runner-up finish to Tom Lehman in the Casio World Open. Those top-10s were enough to move him from 60th to 47th on the Official World Golf Ranking.

He hasn’t since fallen outside the top 50, but that streak is hanging tenuously in the balance as he is currently No. 49.

Nothing lasts forever, and as Mickelson’s nearly quarter-century streak of being ranked among the world’s top 50 is in jeopardy of ending, what better time to examine Lefty’s history in the ranking, and his love-hate relationship with the game’s signature hierarchy; an interaction that has both cemented his status as one of the greatest players of all time and teased him – oftentimes tantalizingly so – by keeping him from the top spot.

“[T]hose are things that I try not to think about, because I know that if I play good enough golf, it will take care of itself. “ – Phil Mickelson, November 2008

Mickelson was 23 when he first ascended into the top 50, and it took him three more years to reach the top 10. The day Phil reached that pinnacle – August 25, 1996 – is a memorable one, not especially for Mickelson, who moved to ninth after winning the World Series of Golf, but because it was the day Tiger Woods won his third straight U.S. Amateur. Woods turned professional one day later.

It wouldn’t be the last time Tiger overshadowed Lefty.

Mickelson spent much of the next 15 years in the top 10, and never fell out of the top 20. For much of that time he was looking up at Woods. During that period, Mickelson was No. 2 on in the world on eight different occasions, spanning 270 weeks. For every one of those weeks Woods was No. 1.

Current Official World Golf Ranking

Mickelson has credited Woods ascendancy as one of the reasons his own career has been so successful. “I feel as though had Tiger not come around, I don't feel I would have pushed myself to achieve what I ended up achieving, because he forced everybody to get the best out of themselves,” Mickelson said at the 2017 PGA Championship. “He forced everybody to work a little bit harder.”

Mickelson did indeed work hard, but for most of his more than five years at No. 2, Woods was so far ahead of Phil that the latter had no chance to reach No. 1. Woods’ ranking points were often more than double that of Mickelson. When Phil first reached No. 2 on Feb. 11, 2001, Woods had a whopping 16-point lead. On Jan.5, 2003, the last of 100 straight weeks that Phil was No. 2, Woods’ lead was 7.84 points. (For comparison sake, at the end of 2017, No. 1 Dustin Johnson was 1.2 points ahead of second-ranked Jordan Spieth.)

But by the end of the new millennium’s first decade there was an opening for Mickelson.

“Looking back on my career, I think that it would mean a lot to me to be able to say at one point I was No. 1, even if it was for a week, a month, what have you, whatever the time period was, to say I climbed to the top. The goal of all of us would be to say that would be pretty cool, and what I'm striving to accomplish.” – Phil Mickelson, May 2009

Mickelson is not one to enjoy ranking his career accomplishments, at least not for public consumption. He would, on occasion, take to task reporters who beseeched him to “itemize” his career, talking around their questions. And even though he often protested – perhaps too strenuously – that he didn’t understand the inner workings of the world ranking, he always knew where he stood. And by the summer of 2010 he was ohsoclose to pushing himself to the mountaintop.

Woods was not at his best during that time frame, a combination of personal issues and a neck injury combined to put his No. 1 rank in jeopardy. Seemingly every week from the 2010 Masters through the end of September, second-ranked Mickelson had a chance to move up. And seemingly every week he was asked about it.

Mickelson used a variation of the phrase “it’s not an area I focus on,” so often that summer that he was sometimes accused of not caring about the ranking. But he did care, admitting as much prior to the Open Championship. By not focusing on the ranking, he wasn’t saying he didn’t recognize that the No. 1 spot was within his reach, he was saying the tournament was the thing, that getting ready to play challenging golf courses and succeeding would bring their own rewards. “If I were able to win, it would be great to be able to get that ranking,” he said that week at St. Andrews. “But what I care more about right now is trying to win the Open Championship.”

In the end, however, Mickelson always came up short. Lesser players such as Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald eventually replaced Woods at No. 1 and Mickelson was left to contemplate his lot.

Notable events and numbers the last time Phil Mickelson was outside the OWGR Top 50
  • No. 1 movie: "Mrs. Doubtfire"
  • No. 1 song: "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) - Meatloaf
  • Heavyweight champion: Evander Holyfield (def. Riddick Bowe, Nov. 7)
  • Snoop Dogg releases debut album "Doggystyle" (Nov. 23)
  • Jordan Spieth: Age, 4 months old
  • Top 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking (in order): Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Nick Price

Mickelson finally moved ahead of Woods in April 2011. Mickelson was third, Woods was seventh. “It would really mean a lot if he was No. 1 at the time when I passed him,” Mickelson joked prior to the Masters. “Yeah, that would be really cool.”

But in celebrating Mickelson’s tenure in the top 50, the fact he never reached No. 1 should not depreciate the accomplishment, just as the fact he has not won a PGA Tour Player of the Year award hasn’t diminished his Hall-of-Fame legacy.

Consider that in addition to Lefty’s 270 weeks at No. 2, Mickelson spent 567 weeks in the top five, 786 weeks in the top 10 and 1,085 weeks – an astonishing 20 years and 10 months – in the top 20. That’s more than 2½ years longer than Woods spent in the top 20. Who says Phil never caught Tiger?

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”