Lefty rivals may regret tugging at Tigers tail


Bookmakers the world over made Tiger Woods the odds-on favorite to win thisweek’s Australian Masters.

No surprise there. As anyone who’s backed him or been lucky enough to drawhis name in the office calcutta can attest, that’s rarely a bad bet. Yet givenWoods’ form in the final round of a few tournaments recently, the wager mightseem a bit optimistic.

Or maybe it’s based in part on who won’t be there: Phil Mickelson .

Woods’ reputation as a closer has been dented of late, and the left-handerhas done most of the whacking. Mickelson clobbered Woods in a head-to-headmatchup last week in the final round of the HSBC Champions in China, and camefrom off the pace in late September to steal the Tour Championship in Atlantafrom Woods and final-round leader Kenny Perry .

Rather than press his luck on a third continent, though, Mickelson opted toreturn home and spend most of the next three months looking after his family.Both his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, underwent treatment for breast cancerduring the year, and have received favorable outlooks since.

One can only speculate what Mickelson’s year would have been like withoutthat hardship, but it’s worth noting he was arguably the best player in the gameboth before he took time off in June to help care for Amy, and again as theseason winds to a close.

Had the back-and-forth between Mickelson and Woods taken place in the middleof the season, or better yet, with something on the line in one or more of themajors, golf would have had a version of the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry it’s beenclamoring for the past dozen or so years. Instead, the hope becomes they’ll pickup in 2010 where they left off.

It should surprise no one that the short stick is behind both Mickelson’sresurgence and Woods’ late-round troubles.

A few lessons from putting guru Dave Stockton in early fall made theleft-hander rock-solid from close-in, especially down the stretch. Clutchputting has been the bedrock of Woods’ success; the only player who’s made asmany tough putts over the course of a career is the same one Tiger is most oftencompared to: Nicklaus.

Woods certainly made his share this year; no one wins six times on the PGATour and posts another 14 top-10 finishes without doing that. It’s even moreremarkable, considering he started the year coming off reconstructive kneesurgery.

Still, in the majors—the tournaments that matter most to Woods—he wasuncharacteristically shaky, and never moreso than in the final round of the PGAChampionship at Hazeltine. There, Woods squandered a two-shot lead againstunheralded Y.E. Yang , and lost for the first time in a major when leading goinginto the final round.

As much as anything, that singular defeat occasioned talk that it waspossible to tug on Superman’s cape and get away with it. Even Nicklaus feltcompelled to weigh in recently, saying that while he expected Woods would addthe five majors needed to surpass his own record of 18 sometime over the next2-3 years, “he still has to do it, it isn’t a given.”

No, it’s not. But as the bookmakers can vouch from experience, you almostnever take the under on any bet that involves Woods. For all the talk about leantimes, Woods has won four of the last 12 majors—more than Mickelson or any ofhis peers have won in their careers—and finished runner-up in four others.When he says, “The whole idea is to give yourself a chance in each and everyone,” it’s far from idle talk.

We’ll have to wait until next season for proof, of course, but the earlysigns are promising. Woods has made a habit of roaring back whenever achallenger to the throne gets hot, and he’s always regarded Mickelson as aspecial case in the past. Plus, the majors this year feature at least two venues— Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open and St. Andrews for the British—where Woodshas played some withering golf in the past.

The best rarely lack for motivation, and Woods is no doubt already takingnames. During a break in a recent practice round, someone suggested to Tigerthat one way to measure how dominant he’d become was that his losing the PGAChampionship made more news than Yang winning.

Woods surely understood he was being paid a compliment. Competitor that heis, though, Woods couldn’t resist pretending it was yet one more slight.

“So, you’re writing me off, huh?” he teased.

Just the opposite. Pencil him in for at least two majors in 2010 and take itto the bank.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write tohim at jlitke(at)ap.org