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Woods' struggles mean opportunity for Phil

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Tiger Woods did the rest of golf a huge favor getting out of the way for awhile.

He’s still doing it in major championships.

Back at the height of his powers, Woods mercilessly choked the growth around him. He towered so formidably over the game that his shadow stunted youthful ambition and damaged veteran confidence. His overwhelming presence smothered hopes and dreams.

Back when Woods was at his best on the game’s grandest stages, Paul Azinger said he felt sorry for the players of that generation because they would never know what it’s like to be the No. 1 player. Woods so formidably blocked the way there.

“Tiger destroyed a lot of players, confidence wise,” Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach, once said.

Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Ernie Els and even Phil Mickelson might have substantially better resumes today if not for Woods’ long, dominant reign.

When Woods got out of the way taking that detour into a neighbor’s fire hydrant almost four years ago, he didn’t just give youthful talent room to grow. He opened the door for veterans to more confidently resume pursuit of their grandest dreams.

That gets us to Sunday and Mickelson’s brilliant finish in his Open Championship breakthrough victory.

After all Woods and Mickelson have been through, the release of the newest Official World Golf Ranking intrigues. It takes us back to a place that is simultaneously familiar and uncharted.

Through their ups and downs, through their winding journeys and all of their challenges, Woods and Mickelson are back today at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the world rankings.

It’s an exciting reprisal because while we’ve certainly been here before, we’ve never been here with this dynamic. We’ve never been here with the gap between No. 1 Woods and No. 2 Mickelson looking so narrow. Really, we’ve never been here before with Mickelson looking as if he has a legitimate chance to seize the No. 1 ranking from Woods and finally reign as the best player in all of golf.

Woods has been No. 1 in the world an incredible 641 weeks.

Mickelson has been No. 2 to Woods in 266 of those weeks.

When Mickelson first moved to No. 2 behind Woods on Feb. 11, 2001, the difference in their world-ranking average was more than daunting. Woods’ point average was 27.83 to Mickelson’s 11.78. Woods had a larger lead on Mickelson than Mickelson had on any other professional in the world.

The only times Mickelson got within a sniff of taking Woods’ No. 1 ranking was when Woods was out eight months recovering from knee surgery after his ’08 U.S. Open victory and after Woods took a long leave of absence after his personal woes shut down his game through the start of 2010. Still, even then, Mickelson couldn’t pass Woods at the top.

Today, at 43, Mickelson is looking as formidable as he has ever looked.

“I’m playing the best I’ve ever played,” he said Sunday with the claret jug in his clutches.

Mickelson told us going to Muirfield that he was driving and putting better than ever.

After a second-place finish on Merion’s narrow corridors in the U.S. Open last month and this win on Muirfield’s wickedly firm and fast layout, Mickelson radiates with renewed confidence and ambition.

Woods, despite four victories already this season, can’t say the same under major championship heat.

With a chance to end his five-year winless spell in majors Sunday at Muirfield, Woods squandered his bid with a 74. His weekend woes in majors are mystifying given how so many elements in his game are coming back.

“This is not the same Tiger Woods we are used to seeing,” Azinger said in Sunday’s ESPN telecast. “Maybe it is the Tiger Woods we are getting used to seeing.”

Woods, to be sure, is putting formidable tools in his game back together. He’s driving the ball better. His putting has returned in brilliant flashes. His iron play is the best in the world. He just hasn’t been able to carry it all into a major championship weekend yet. Why? You can’t help wondering if the shadow of his former brilliance isn’t stifling his own growth. You can’t help wondering if he doesn’t want it all back too much.

Here’s the thing, though. While Woods is struggling to put it all together in majors, his competition’s getting better, more confident, more ambitious. That’s making foes tougher for Woods to beat.

Woods isn’t stifling hopes and dreams anymore.

At 43, it’s all still there for Mickelson.

While he will never be consistently dangerous – it’s not in his biorhythms – all he has ever hoped and dreamed for in his career are within reach now.

Mickelson has never been No. 1 before. He’s within real striking distance now. He’s never been the PGA Tour Player of the Year. That’s within reach. He’s never been the PGA Tour’s leading money winner. That’s possible, too. He wants to win the career grand slam, and with this British Open breakthrough, a U.S. Open victory is all he lacks.

All Woods has most hoped and dreamed for is still there for him, too. At 37, he still has plenty of chances to win four more majors to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record for most major championship titles (18). It won’t be as easy as it once seemed, but it can still happen. Woods just has to figure out how to break this habit of getting out of the way on weekends at majors.

The prospect that Woods and Mickelson will have something to say about whether the other realizes his most cherished dreams tantalizes.