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Tiger, Phil playing mind games with themselves

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There has never been a great athlete in any sport who wasn’t masterful at deception – specifically self-deception. Through the years, myriad clichés have evolved in different sports. Pitchers have great stuff, but their command is off. Batters are hitting the ball on the button but right at people. Quarterbacks are throwing the ball well but are having a little problem going vertical. Shooters in basketball aren’t getting enough good looks.

The golf clichés are similar: I’m hitting it as well as I’ve ever hit it, I’m just not making any putts. I’m putting well – the ball’s just not going in the hole. And the popular: It’s right there, I’m just a little bit off.

Of course, in the case of truly great players, the clichés are often true. To go out right now and bet your house that neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson will win the PGA Championship next month would be insane.

Why? Because one is, at worst, the second-best player in history and the other is almost certainly in the top 15 – or possibly better. You never write off the truly elite athlete. Even playing at 20 pounds overweight for the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan was still a legitimate NBA All-Star. He wasn’t close to being Michael Jordan but he was still a very good basketball player.

All of that being said, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry when listening to Woods and Mickelson last week during the British Open.

Woods sounded more like a guy preparing to run the 100-meter dash at the Olympics than a golfer: “I’m stronger, faster, more explosive.” Heck, he even came out of the starting blocks well with his 69 on Thursday. But golf’s not a sprint and the most gentle part of the game (putting) has been Woods’s biggest downfall, especially in majors, in recent years. But then, almost predictably, came rounds of 77, 73 and 75 and Woods’ worst four-round finish ever in a major (69th place).

Let’s remember that prior to the tournament, Woods said his expectation was, “to finish first,” because that’s always his expectation. As late as Friday evening he was reminding people that Paul Lawrie came from 10-shots back at Carnoustie on Sunday in 1999 to win.

That’s true. But Rory McIlroy isn’t Jean Van de Velde and Tiger Woods, at least at the moment, isn’t Tiger Woods. This time he wasn’t even 64-year-old Tom Watson.

All of which is to be expected when you’ve only played six rounds of competitive golf since early March and undergone back surgery. But the notion, which Woods even put forth at Congressional after missing the cut by four shots, that he was just a little bit off here and there is ludicrous. Tiger Woods finishing 23 shots behind the winner is not that far off? Seriously?

In some ways, Mickelson sounded more delusional. For weeks, even months, he has been insisting that he’s “right there.” Every week he’s hitting the ball the best he’s hit it all year. If that’s the case, he should be shooting 59 almost every day with that kind of improvement.

How in the world can Phil Mickelson say he’s hitting the ball well after hitting three balls out of bounds the first two days of a major under relatively benign conditions? It’s not like hurricane winds blew those balls out of bounds; Mickelson hit them there. The fact that he recovered from one of the out of bounds to make bogey and from another to make par is proof that the genius still lives inside him.

Here’s one thing you can bet: Mickelson will show up in Akron next week and talk about how he found something on the last day at Hoylake, that shooting 68 on Sunday to finish T-23 gave him an extra boost of confidence. He probably won’t bring up the fact that 28 players broke 70 that day and not one of them was the winner.

Mickelson should probably be more concerned with the state of his game right now than Woods. He’s 44 and, even though he won the British Open a year ago, he’s not as long off the tee as he once was and you can’t help but wonder when the psoriatic arthritis he battles is going to start to affect him – if it isn’t already. He certainly isn’t going to talk about it and sounds as if he’s making excuses. He also hasn’t been able to putt with any consistency for most of the last year.

Woods will be 39 in December and, unlike Mickelson, who suffers from a disease that isn’t curable, his various physical issues have all been fixable. Still, his is a battered 38-year-old body – clearly a fragile one, based on past history.

Even so, the biggest battle both men face right now is between their ears. For all their talk about how good they feel about their swings and their games and their explosiveness, each is clearly fighting himself on the golf course. Mickelson doesn’t play golf to finish T-23 and Woods certainly doesn’t play to finish 69th. The only thing that matters to either one at this stage of their career are the majors: Mickelson would like to finish the career Grand Slam and add another major or two before he’s done and Woods is still holding out hope that he can find some of his youthful brilliance again and surpass Jack Nicklaus.

Right now, you wouldn’t bet the ranch on either guy. But you’d be foolish to write them off, even if the best thing about their golf at the moment is their ability to spin bad results into sounding hopeful.

Then again, that’s to be expected from the best of the best. It's what they do.