DORAL, Fla. – As NBC’s telecast of the WGC-Cadillac Championship was coming on the air Saturday, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were preparing to leave the stage.
They were moving out of the way with the next generation thundering in behind them.
That’s what it felt like.
In the larger view of the game, that’s what it feels like on this World Golf Championship stage, where the best of the best try to shine.
With Woods and Mickelson playing the 18th hole as the third-round telecast began, the game’s next wave was storming the leaderboard.
Look at the top eight going into Sunday’s final round at the TPC Blue Monster at Doral.
Dustin Johnson (-13), Luke Donald (-11), Matt Kuchar (-11), Nick Watney (-11), Adam Scott (-10), Rory McIlroy (-10), Francesco Molinari (-10) and Hunter Mahan (-10) are all within three shots of each other.
The average age of the bunch? 28.5 years old.
Woods is hardly an old man at 35, but he’s older than anybody in the top eight.
Mickelson is 40 and not-so-long-ago diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis.
Woods begins Sunday 11 shots back, Mickelson 13 back.
Mickelson's winless drought is nearing a year as his title defense at the Masters approaches.
If anything, Woods further emboldened his youthful competition with those two terrible swings with his driver in Friday’s second round and with his balky putter through three rounds. His high-handicapper’s duck hook that nosedived in the rough before reaching the women’s tees at No. 2 and his infield-fly rule pop-up at the 14th were still being talked about Saturday.
“The drives at the second and 14th were a shock,” Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach said while visiting the NBC TV booth during Saturday’s telecast. “This is Tiger Woods, not a Nationwide Tour player trying to get his card.
“If I’m Tiger Woods, I’m a little frustrated I’m not seeing more consistency.”
Woods’ next start is the Tavistock Cup, an unofficial event Monday and Tuesday on Woods’ home course at Isleworth Country Club outside Orlando. The familiarity of that setting and the comfortable nature of that event should help Woods.
“If he doesn’t play well there, then I think there are some real problems,” Harmon said.
Doral seemed like an ideal setting to spark a rebound in both these players. Woods has won on the Blue Monster three times, Mickelson once. They staged a terrific duel here in ’05, the first of Woods’ Doral victories. They were paired together in the first three rounds this week, but even that didn’t ignite returns to form.
Woods shot 2-under-par 70 Sunday, Mickelson 72, but neither stopped to discuss their rounds with media.
The world rankings are a measure of what’s happening to this once dynamic duo.
No. 1-2 at the start of last year, they’re both sliding fast with Woods at No. 5 and Mickelson No. 6. Given who’s on the leaderboard this weekend, it’s possible that Woods could get bumped all the way down to No. 10 in the world come Sunday night. Mickelson, Casey, McIlroy, Stricker and Kuchar all have chances to move ahead of Woods in the world rankings, depending how Woods closes.
Today’s top players aren’t writing off Woods and Mickelson, but they’re gaining confidence and momentum with a wide open battle for No. 1.
“When you talk about Tiger and Phil, they are always going to be in the mix, maybe not every week, but they are going to be in the mix because they are great players,” Johnson said. “ They have been great players for a long time. But there's a lot of good young players coming up right now that you are going to see at the top of the leaderboard a lot.”
And in the spotlight on golf’s grand stages.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell