DORAL, Fla. – The top three players in the world ranking will be in the same group for the opening two rounds of the Cadillac Championship, the second time in five weeks for such a glamorous 1-2-3 punch. There is on notable substitution.
Luke Donald is in.
Tiger Woods is out.
And for most fans at Doral for this World Golf Championship, the main event will be one notch down the ranking for Woods, Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell.
Donald moved up to No. 3 two weeks ago in Arizona when he captured the biggest win of his career at the Match Play Championship. That puts him alongside Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood when the Cadillac Championship gets under way Thursday on the Blue Monster.
Donald doesn’t obsess over the ranking, although it’s hard to dismiss one fact.
“There’s only two players ranked higher than me in the world right now, and that’s pretty amazing to think about,” Donald said.
Even more amazing – Woods isn’t among them.
He had been No. 1 for more than five years until his shocking fall, on and off the golf course. Westwood was the first to replace Woods at the end of October, and then Kaymer replaced Westwood with his runner-up finish at the Match Play.
McDowell took over at No. 4, pushing Woods down to his lowest level since the week before he won the 1997 Masters.
Even so, there’s always something special about Woods and Mickelson, particularly at Doral.
They are the top two players of their generations, supported by the record alone. Woods has 82 victories around the world, including 14 majors. Mickelson is at 40 worldwide wins with four majors.
Their combined 18 majors is equal to the rest of the 69-man field at Doral combined.
“We don’t get paired together very often,” Woods said.
This will be the 27th time that Woods and Mickelson have been the same group, and only the fifth time it took place on Thursday and Friday of a tournament. The last three were either majors (2008 U.S. Open, 2006 PGA Championship), or a FedEx Cup playoff event (2007 Deutsche Bank Championship).
Mickelson, who played Augusta National on Tuesday, rested on the day before Doral. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, walked the course and met up with Woods early in his practice round.
“Bones and I were on the golf course today and trying to remember the last time it happened in a non-major,” Woods said of their pairing. “And he thought it was in ’98. So obviously, we don’t get to do it very often.”
That was the 1998 Nissan Open, the year it moved from Riviera to Valencia, the only time a Woods-Mickelson weekday pairing was done by a blind draw. And that streak continues, for there was nothing blind about this one.
The PGA Tour has been tweaking its pairings this year to make for interesting stories on television, perhaps to attract more viewers when it gets to the network coverage on the weekend.
Woods and Mickelson figured to be put together at some point, and it was coincidence that they were next to each other in the ranking. The twist is that neither is among the new “Big Three,” at least at the moment.
They first played together at Doral in the final round of 2005 when it was a regular PGA Tour event, and a sold-out crowd that approached some 50,000 turned the Blue Monster into a rock concert.
Mickelson took a two-shot lead into the final round, only for Woods to rally and take a one-shot lead into the final hole. Mickelson’s chip from just off the green to force a playoff caught the lip, and Woods won to return to No. 1 in the world.
A year later, they were in the final group of the third round when Woods shot 68 and took the lead, leaving Mickelson four shots behind. Woods went on to win the next day.
It was part of three straight wins at Doral, although victories haven’t been piling up for Woods in the last few years. He now has gone 15 months since his last win at the Australian Masters, right before his personal life imploded on Thanksgiving night with the revelation of extramarital affairs.
Mickelson, meanwhile, has not won since the Masters.
Who could have imagined that Woods and Mickelson would have one victory between them over the last 15 months?
Woods has not shown many signs that he is close to regaining his form, and the venue doesn’t help like it once did. He had won five straight times at Torrey Pines, then finished out of the top 10 for the first time ever. He had never finished out of the top 10 at Dubai, and wound up fading on Sunday into a tie for 20th.
Woods might continue to fall in the ranking if he doesn’t start playing better. As for no longer being No. 1?
“It’s about winning golf tournaments, and I haven’t done that,” Woods said. “There’s no reason for me to be up there at the top. You have to win golf tournaments and you have to do it consistently. Lee did it, Martin’s done it, and that’s what it takes.”