Tiger, Phil and the major rivalry that never emerged

By Joe PosnanskiJuly 19, 2016, 10:00 pm

There's a quirky statistic that I want to show you, but first I need to say this: Please don't look at the stat and immediately pound out some wild email screed about my sanity. You can feel free to do that after reading the point, but in this case I would ask your forbearance and at least wait a couple of paragraphs before calling me a loon.

OK, here's the statistic:

Top 3s in a major championship:

  • Tiger Woods, 24
  • Phil Mickelson, 23

(This lunatic is actually comparing Mickelson to Woods. Um, last I checked Woods had 14 major championships and Mickelson had like five. This guy isn’t really comparing these guys, is he? Where is the comment section? What is this guy’s email?)

OK, wait, please. There is a point to be made here, a fairly interesting one I think, and it is not a suggestion that Mickelson’s career is close to Woods’ career. Their careers are not especially close for all the obvious reasons – major championships, PGA Tour victories, scoring averages, etc. and so forth and so on and yadda yadda yadda.

But …

Mickelson is one of the 10 or 15 greatest players in history. Brandel Chamblee came up with an interesting top-15 list on Twitter, pairing Tiger and Jack on top, following them with a Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan exacta, and then going with some early stars of the sport (Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Harry Vardon), some golfers who starred in the ‘40s and ‘50s (Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke) and some more from the 1960s and ‘70s (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino). Then he came to Mickelson at No. 15.*

*Quick aside: Whenever people try to rank athletes in golf or baseball, they tend to have a strong bias against more recent athletes. I think that is because these are the two sports that connect most strongly with history. In baseball, modern players can never match up to ancient stars like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson.  On Brandel’s list, only two of the 15 were born since 1950 while six players were born more than 100 years ago.

But getting back to it, let’s just say that Mickelson is the 15th best player in the game’s history – that seems reasonable. And let’s say that Woods and Nicklaus are tied for the top. That’s also reasonable.

Well, what’s the difference between Mickelson’s career and Woods’ career? What’s the difference between being one of the greatest ever and the greatest ever?

OK, now, look at that statistic above one more time. In their very different careers, Mickelson and Woods finished top 3 in almost exactly the same number of major championships.

Woods put himself in position to win 24 times. He won four of seven at Augusta; four of six at the U.S. Open; three of five at The Open, and four of six at the PGA. Look at those percentages.

Mickelson put himself in position to win 23 times. He won three of nine at the Masters, zero of six at the U.S. Open, one of four at The Open, and one of four at the PGA.

That’s it. That’s the difference between great and legendary, between terrific and unparalleled. Woods closed. Mickelson faltered. Woods was rarely challenged. Mickelson ran into players who found their best at the right moment. Woods’ crucial putts dropped. And Mickelson’s, so often, lipped out.

Just look at Mickelson’s 11 second-place finishes: Payne Stewart made a putt at Pinehurst. David Toms got up and down from the fairway at Atlanta Athletic Club. Woods ran away from Mickelson at Bethpage. Mickelson three-putted from 5 feet at Shinnecock. Mickelson lost his mind on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. Mickelson’s putting went south down the stretch at Bethpage, Part II. Mickelson went on an ill-timed bogey run at Royal St. George’s. Mickelson could not hold on to a lead at Merion. Rory McIlroy was one shot too good at Valhalla. Jordan Spieth ran away from Mickelson at the Masters.

And then on Sunday, at Troon, Mickelson at age 46 played the final round of his life, a bogey-free 65 that was so remarkable and wonderful that it reminded again and again of Nicklaus’ final round at Augusta in ’86.

And the guy playing with him, Henrik Stenson, a 40-year-old star who had spent a decade or so building up his “best player to never win a major” credentials, played even better. I think it might be the greatest final round in major championship history. Johnny Miller’s extraordinary 63 at Oakmont in 1973 has long been considered the best closing round ever, and it should be: Only five players that day broke 70.

But Miller was playing relatively pressure free golf, at least early in the round. He began the day six shots back, in 13th place. He knew he had to go out there and shoot low, and he birdied the first four holes, and began to realize that this might be a magical day. He tied for the lead by the 13th hole. There was extreme pressure, no doubt, but it was basically a wild comeback and a miraculous day.

Stenson, meanwhile, had to sleep on the lead at The Open. He bogeyed the very first hole to lose that lead. Then he had to play a virtual match play against one of the legends of golf at his very best. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but Stenson’s extraordinary round certainly ranks with anyone’s in the long history of the game.

And it left Mickelson second again. That’s was the 11th time; Tiger Woods finished second just six times. Mickelson also has more third-place finishes than Woods (7 to 4).

Why? Why was Woods almost always the guy wearing the green jacket or lifting the trophy while Mickelson’s career has been marked by the close calls, the tournaments he lost and the ones that were taken away?

It’s hard to figure. We can paper over it and just say that Woods was more clutch, but that’s a vague and imprecise answer. Would Woods have found a way to beat Stenson on Sunday? Or – and maybe this is the same question – would Stenson have not played that well if he was paired with an in-his-prime Woods? Interesting and unanswerable questions, both.

Mickelson’s career shape is obviously very different from Woods’. Here’s another quirky statistic:

Major championships by age 33:

  • Tiger Woods: 14
  • Phil Mickelson: 0

Major championships after age 33:

  • Tiger Woods: 0
  • Phil Mickelson: 5

So, we see that Woods was a force of nature unlike anyone. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs and was Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year before he won his first professional major. He won the Masters by 12 shots just months after turning pro, and he won four major championships in a row after he honed his swing (earning his second Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award), and he so utterly dominated the sport for a decade that he left the greatest players in the world defeated.

Mickelson, meanwhile, grew into himself. He was a phenom too, a U.S. Amateur champ, the last amateur to win a PGA Tour event. But that didn’t suit his personality. His magical touch around the green prompted him to try impossible – and stupid – shots. His aggressive nature pressed him to shoot for the flag when the middle of the green was the winning play. For a while, it seemed like he would show up at every major with a new strategy, a new lifestyle, a new club, a new mantra. Sometimes he would leave the driver at home. Sometimes he would use two different drivers. There was chaos clanging around in that mind.

But as he got older he found his speed. That long and easy swing of Mickelson’s held up while the violence of Tiger’s swing tore up his back and knees. Mickelson at 46 just played perhaps his best-ever major championship – he will contend again. Woods at 40, well, who knows?

The shame of the Woods-Mickelson rivalry is that it never really was a rivalry. They never quite got the timing down. It was a blast to watch Mickelson and Stenson have their own Duel in the Sun (“High Troon,” I like to call it) but it reminded that we never really had that sort of hole-by-hole, birdie vs. birdie battle between Woods and Mickelson. We never got those two against each other at their best. Yes, the smart money would have been on Woods. Still: It would have been fun to watch.

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.