Phil Mickelson had a two-shot lead with three holes to play at the U.S. Open. He looked like a lock to win his third straight major and head to Hoylake for a shot at his own Grand Slam, and a spot in history that was supposed to be the private domain of Tiger Woods.
Four days on the crispy, brown links of Royal Liverpool changed everything.
The cheers Mickelson heard as he finished up the British Open on Sunday were coming from behind the 18th green, where Woods had a one-shot lead and was just getting started. Woods then matched the best round of the day (67) while playing in the final group and won by two shots for his 11th career major.
Woods now has won three of the last seven majors, slightly better than the 3-of-9 mark Mickelson brought to Winged Foot.
Mickelson might never get another chance like the one he had at the U.S. Open, making double bogey on the 18th hole to lose by one shot. Woods winning the next major was almost like slamming shut a door that was halfway open.
The points separating Woods (No. 1) and Mickelson (No. 2) in the world ranking are equal to the points that separate Mickelson and Brett Rumford at No. 126. The actual gap isn't that wide, but considering how they finished off the last two majors, it might seem that way.
Heading to Medinah next month for the PGA Championship, this is how the landscape looks now.
Mickelson had been the best player through six months of the season, but now it's a toss-up.
He won by 13 shots at the BellSouth Classic and followed that with his second victory in the Masters and should have won the U.S. Open.
Woods, however, leads the PGA Tour in victories. Along with his silver claret jug, he won the Buick Invitational in a playoff and the Ford Championship at Doral in a shootout.
Not to be forgotten is Geoff Ogilvy. Along with winning the U.S. Open after Mickelson's collapse, the 29-year-old Australian was the comeback kid at the Accenture Match Play Championship, surviving four matches that went extra holes.
Woods might have the edge right now because his victory at Royal Liverpool put him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time this year at just over $4.2 million, even though he has played only 10 tournaments.
The money title is significant because it's something Mickelson has never won. He also has never been voted player of the year.
Barring a victory at Medinah next month, Mickelson will not be allowed to take time off over the last month of the season -- including the Tour Championship -- if he wants to win those awards.
'We have one more major coming up, and I really want to be prepared for that,' Mickelson said.
Still, the message that came out of Hoylake was that all roads ultimately have to go through Woods.
Just as glaring as the absence of Mickelson among the leaders at the British Open was the presence of Sergio Garcia, playing in the final group with Woods while dressed in an outfit that some would say was the color of a lemon.
Garcia was outclassed from the start. With shorter irons in his hand, he couldn't get the ball closer to the hole than Woods. And his putting is so poor, some wonder whether he is battling the yips at age 26. He looked closer to Woods at age 19 when he chased after him at Medinah in the '99 PGA Championship than he did on Sunday.
Ernie Els had his chances, too.
He held his own playing with Woods in the final group Saturday, when both shot 71. But it was an ideal situation in the final round when Els played in the second-to-last group, and put pressure on Woods with no mistakes and a two-putt birdie on No. 5 to tie for the lead.
But the Big Easy blinked, and he had to settle for his best finish in a major in two years.
Els has three majors and is among the few players in their prime to have been No. 1 in the world. But one can only wonder how many more majors he would have won without Woods in the picture.
'Competing against a guy like Tiger for our generation of players is really tough,' Els said. 'He has really found a way to win majors. For me, I can do a couple of things better under pressure, so I'm going to be working on that for the next time I play a major.'
Vijay Singh sustained his battle with Woods longer than anyone. He rose to No. 1 in the world in 2004 with nine victories, beating Woods head-to-head and staying at the top for six months. That's longer than anyone else has been No. 1 since Woods turned pro.
But he missed the cut at Royal Liverpool, his first weekend off at a major in four years.
It was a strong leaderboard going into the last day at the British Open -- Woods by one over Garcia, Els and DiMarco, all of whom Woods has beaten while paired together in the final group of a major.
DiMarco must wonder what it takes to win a major. He shot 68 in the final round, didn't make a bogey over the final 17 holes, and still was reduced to a footnote after finishing two shots behind.
'He's a hard guy to catch,' DiMarco said. 'He's got an uncanny ability, when somebody gets close to him, to turn it up to another level.'
And until that changes, Woods will be in the driver's seat.
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