The Great Divide


Quail Hollow ChampionshipCHARLOTTE, N.C. – There was a time, not that long ago, when golf fans of every ilk celebrated the show. When Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson went Cooperstown on a warm spring morning at Doral in 2005, fans of the game, not the player, rejoiced in the event.

“What a day,” we gushed indifferent to individual loyalties. Whether your guy won or watched, when alpha and omega take their best to the same pitch it’s the show, not the outcome, that really matters.

But on Friday at Quail Hollow on an equally picturesque spring day the reality came like a 6-iron out of the pine straw – bipartisanship, at least on an individual level, has caught the early flight home.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods sits dejected during Round 2 of the Quail Hollow Championship. (Getty Images)
“I want to see Phil win and extend that winning streak over Tiger,” growled one scribe as Mickelson made his way toward the top of the leaderboard with two birdies and an eagle in seven holes.

Another story-teller summed up Sunday at Augusta National as, “The afternoon in the garden of good and evil.” An over simplification to be sure that stretches reason with the notion that Woods’ character is without redeeming qualities of any kind and Mickelson’s is above reproach. It is as dogmatic as it is incorrect.

But in this the newsprint is simply a reflection of the times. Whether it was through Woods’ self-induced fall from grace or Mickelson’s made-for-television triumph at the Masters the chasm between those who cheer Lefty’s brash indifference to consequence or Tiger’s tactical brilliance has never been wider.

At no other time outside of the 212 area code has Tiger-Phil been so polarizing.

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t Manchester United vs. Chelsea. But not since the days of Arnie’s Army and the Golden Bear’s best have loyalties outside of the ropes been so fractured.

 This is as divisive as sports get, at least our sport.

Make no mistake, Woods is still revered for his body of work, past and future.

“(The fans) are incredible. The fans here all the years I've been here have been extraordinary, and today with it being 50 degrees this morning or 45 degrees, for them to come out there and support us was pretty cool.,” said Woods, who has been almost universally cheered post-Nov. 27.

But Mickelson is loved. Lefty has always held down the top supporting actor role with the occasional cameo from Garcia or Els, but his days as the preeminent understudy began to fade last year at the Bethpage Open.

The combination of Amy Mickelson’s ongoing health issues, a Winged Foot hangover that seemed to linger right up to the moment Mickelson slipped on his third green jacket earlier this month and an engaged populace made Lefty the de facto favorite when Woods opened with 74.

Where that pendulum has settled is a debate for the pollsters, but through two days at Quail Hollow it has been the “Lefty Love-fest,” perhaps a byproduct of the duo’s divergent play over the first 36 more so than an accurate straw poll. But it is unmistakable, here at NASCAR National public opinion is squarely on the left-handed Californian’s side.

Maybe not so coincidentally the divide began to widen at about the same time Mickelson began closing the gap competitively. There was always the notion that Mickelson needed his best stuff to take down Woods, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough. That theory has started to splinter thanks to Dave Stockton Sr. and victories at last year’s Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions in China.

Mickelson’s Masters moment was the third consecutive victory for Lefty with Woods in the field, consider it a series sweep of the Yankees at the Stadium. And whatever Woods had in the tank at Augusta National was slow coming at Quail Hollow and for just the sixth time in 241 Tour starts as a pro he’ll watch the action from his Barcalounger at home following an unsightly 79 on Friday.

The most telling sign of a changing dichotomy came late Friday when Mickelson talked in relaxed tones of confidence and closing on the lead, while Woods talked about missing the cut.

Woods and Mickelson seem to have reached a curious crossroads together, one searching for his game and still in full damage control mode, the other no longer damaged by the ghosts of Winged Foot and seemingly in full control.

The gambler vs. the gamer, and there is no middle ground.

The softer side of Woods is trying. During Wednesday’s pro-am he was engaged with his partners and fans and signed autographs for 25 minutes. But if the new Tiger Woods is a work in progress, the old Phil Mickelson is the finished product.

On Friday on his way to a second-round 68, Mickelson shrugged and smiled and fist bumped his way around the leafy layout. On Thursday riding on fumes and pumped full of IV solution Lefty signed for 20 minutes after his media duties.

It’s a hearts and minds deal, be it by design or DNA, and it has fractured the body golf. The middle ground in golf has become all but extinct, like square grooves and stymies. Destroyed, it seems, by a rivalry that has never been better. That has never been this polarized.