History to be written between Tiger and Phil

By Randall MellApril 6, 2009, 4:00 pm
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Phil Mickelson dropped his guard.
Thats what it sounded like at the CA Championship at Doral a month ago, when Mickelson was barely able to contain his enthusiasm over his belief that work with swing coach Butch Harmon and a new Callaway FT-9 driver had catapulted him to a new level of control in his long game.
Radiating with confidence in the fact that this was happening just as his short game was rounding back into form, he gave us one of those quintessential Mickelson moments.
Lefty let his giant belief in himself get the better of him, and he took a reporters bait when asked how he felt about Woods falling so far behind him after two rounds at the CA Championship.
It kind of sucks, said Mickelson, who went on to win the CA Championship. I hope he comes out tomorrow and plays a great round and makes a move. I would love to get back from '05 (at Doral). I came close in '05 and got beat, and I would love the opportunity to play head-to-head.
His answers worth revisiting with the Masters upon us.
Mickelsons eagerness to test his rebuilt game against Woods was palpable that day at Doral.
Give Mickelson credit. Despite the beat downs Woods so regularly administers to todays challengers, nobody gets off the mat with more determination than Mickelson.
Nobody wants a piece of Woods more than Lefty.
Whether that makes Mickelson a relentless, resilient spirit or a glutton for punishment will be left for history to judge.
Thats the thing as both Mickelson and Woods arrive for this Masters having won in the last month. With Mickelson 38 and Woods 33, theres still time for meaningful history to be written between these two.
While Mickelson will never surpass Woods standing among the games greats, Mickelson can still win something important that goes beyond a few more majors.
Mickelson doesnt have to be Woods equal to be his rival.
Now thats about the most esteemed title any player of this generation can carve out of Woods reign.
Beating Woods head to head in a couple major championship duels should be enough to be remembered as a rival.
Lee Trevino won just six majors to Jack Nicklaus 18, but hell always be remembered as a thorn in the Golden Bears side, a rival able to deny Nicklaus what he wanted most. Thats what Mickelson could be with Woods breathing down Nicklaus neck in a bid to surpass Nicklaus record 18 professional majors.
The rivals role could be established in some memorable equivalent to Trevinos tossing a rubber snake at Nicklaus before Trevino beat Nicklaus in a U.S. Open Monday playoff at Merion in 1971. Nicklaus finished second to Trevino four times in majors.
Theres no shame in the players of this generation losing to Woods because he may ultimately prove to be better than any player who ever lived.
Its hugely disappointing, though, that nobodys emerged as some sort of consistent irritant to Woods in the biggest events.
The best players of every generation had rivals. Bobby Jones had Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan had Sam Snead and Byron Nelson.
If Mickelsons going to win that role, Augusta National seems the ideal stage to stake a claim.
Mickelson has won two Masters (2004, 06) and Woods four (1997, 2001, 02 and 05). Theyve summoned their very best at Augusta National, but never quite at the same time.
One or the other claimed five of the six green jackets between 2001 and 06, but 01 marked the only time theyve ever played together in a final round there.
Woods started the final round of 01 with a one-shot lead on Mickelson, but Mickelsons chances were dashed at the 16th hole. He hit his tee shot up on the ridge at that pivotal par 3, then couldnt coax his putt closer than 7 feet, which he missed to take bogey and fall away. Mickelson came a single shot on that Sunday from becoming the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at the Masters, and he still finished three shots behind Woods.
In two of Woods Masters victories, Mickelsons finished third (01 and 02).
The closest Woods has come when Mickelson won at Augusta National was a tie for third in 06, though Woods never really threatened the lead.
That day at Doral last month, after Mickelson let his guard down, he made a concerted effort to reign in the confidence he was feeling in wanting to test himself against Woods.
I think we all as players cannot wait for Tiger to get back on top of his game and hopefully be able to keep pace with him, Mickelson said. Not that we've been able to do it in the past, but we are hoping to have those opportunities to go head-to-head.
Maybe this is the week Mickelson gets his wish.

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