Mickelson-Woods rivalry might just be getting started


PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Motivation is never lacking for Phil Mickelson once major season rolls around, but it’s especially high this week.

Yes, he’s the British Open champion, a title that still doesn’t sound quite real, which is why he wakes up each morning with the claret jug in clear view.

And, sure, Lefty thinks that, at age 43, he’s playing as well as he ever has, which causes you to stop and take note, because before this mini-epiphany he had still won 41 times on the PGA Tour, including four majors.

But there’s another reason why Mickelson is extra-motivated this week, why his step seems a little bouncier, his perma-grin a bit wider.

Because Tiger Woods won last week. By a lot (by seven over the field, by 16 over Phil). And nothing gets Mickelson revved up like seeing his chief rival in full flight.

Tiger at the peak of his powers? Phil playing to his full potential? It’s a delicious prospect.

“That would ultimately be the goal,” Mickelson said Tuesday at Oak Hill, “if I can play as well as I can at the same time he’s doing the same. I would love that opportunity.”

So would golf fans, of course, but before taking the plunge and predicting a Sunday showdown at Oak Hill, keep in mind that the top two players in the world – who are separated in the OWGR by approximately the size of New York – have met only three times in the final round of a major, and just once since 2001.

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It’s baffling, really, considering they’ve been golf’s leading duo for nearly two decades. But Woods has engaged in far more head-to-head combats with the other boldfaced players of his generation – namely Vijay, Ernie and Furyk – than with Mickelson, the most distinguished of the erstwhile Big 5. Career comparisons are futile – Mickelson readily admits that his pales to Woods’ – but the same can be said for just about anyone not named Jack. 

The dynamics of their relationship have been dissected more than Brad & Angelina’s, but Mickelson says it has often been misunderstood. He points out that they’ve been partners on the pingpong table (quite successfully, in fact), and that they’ve engaged in friendly banter on the team bus.

“We have a lot more fun together than I think is realized,” Mickelson said.

Of course, it helps, too, that Lefty is no longer an easy target in their head-to-head matchups. The last 15 times he has been paired with Woods, Mickelson has shot the better score eight times (and tied once), lending credence to the notion that he has solved the riddle – or, at the very least, understood the mind games – of playing with the world No. 1.  

“I feel like he brings out the best golf in me,” Mickelson said. “He’s a great motivator for me. He’s helped me work hard. He’s helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level year-in and year-out, and I’ve loved competing against him. He’s really brought the best out of me, especially when we’ve been paired together, and I hope that we are able to play together for many more years.”

Whether it comes this week or not, Mickelson clearly covets a head-to-head showdown with Woods at a major – especially now that he says he’s playing arguably the best golf of his career. With five top 3s in his last eight worldwide starts, Mickelson has found reliable fixes for both his wayward driver and shaky putting stroke.   

More than that, though, he realized in the Open’s aftermath just how important the claret jug was to him. For two decades, Mickelson didn’t believe that he possessed the kind of game to win on a links course, that he wouldn’t be able to revamp his aerial attack at the major that is played mostly on the ground.

Winning the Scottish double, however – the latter with a final-round 66 at Muirfield, one of the greatest final rounds in major championship history – simply solidified the fact that he was a complete player.

“It changed some of my perception of myself as a player,” he said.

That breakthrough victory was a spark for golf in general, as was Woods’ romp two weeks later at Firestone.

It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the final act of this rivalry will be the best yet.