On Wednesday at Torrey Pines – the stage, it’s worth noting, of Woods’ greatest victory – one appeared relaxed and eagerly glad-handed the media, while the other remained in a self-inflicted exile and was likely just glad to be out of the media spotlight.
One played offense, not only acknowledging the elephant in the room but calling out the obvious, while the other remains defensive and clings to his privacy.
One begins 2010 with the zeal of a child, emboldened by recent successes and epiphanies and a re-ignited competitive spirit, while the other faces an uncertain professional future as he deals with a deeply personal conflict.
It was always clear Mickelson and Woods were cut from vastly different DNA, but watching Lefty enthusiastically bound into a new season on Wednesday raised the possibility that the two aren’t even of the same species.
From the outset of Mickelson’s 35-minute “State of Phil” address to the media, the left-hander was preemptiveand productive, by definition the estranged sibling of the way Woods has handled the crap storm that has become his personal life.
“Before we talk about (the Farmers Insurance Open) there’s a few other areas I’d like to discuss,” Mickelson began.
No duck, no cover, just to the point – from Woods’ exile from Tour life to new grooves to the health of his wife, Amy, and mother who were diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
“The game of golf needs him to come back,” Mickelson said of Woods. “But right now he’s got a lot more important things going on in his life.”
From there Mickelson declined to go into much more detail other than to say he has spoken with the “Woods family” and wishes them the best. Hardly stop-the-press stuff but enough to satisfy the assembled scribes and move on.
Perhaps the biggest news of the day was Mickelson’s explanation of a scheduling conflict that will keep him from playing next month’s Match Play Championship, which will mark just the second time he’s missed the event since it began in 1999.
The good news for Accenture, the financial services giant that pays the bills at the Match Play, is that if bad things come in threes they’ve met their quota. Woods’ troubles prompted Accenture to distance itself from one of their primary endorsers, which in turn all but guarantees he will skip golf’s version of the “Big Dance.” In recent days the company’s stock price has fallen to a January low, and now no Phil.
After Woods’ freefall, the Match Play – the center of the golf universe last year as the site of Woods’ much-anticipated comeback – is the leader in the clubhouse for this season’s buzzkill award.
Yet Mickelson even made lemonade out of his Match Play lemon, suggesting he would make up the start later in the year when his schedule permits and, completely unprovoked, explained why he would skip the event.
“The Match Play is a week that my kids are out of school and that’s why I’m skipping this year, not because I want to,” Mickelson said. “It was the best week for us to have a family vacation that we had to reschedule because of our procedures.”
From his intense offseason regimen to his newfound confidence with his putter, Mickelson’s anticipation for the coming season was palpable and a perfect paradigm of the game’s two most divergent personalities.
Hidden within the words left unsaid, however, was the reality that golf is at its best when Phil is at his best, pushing Woods and providing balance to a playing field that has seemed tilted for too long.
It’s not as if Mickelson needs Woods to feel complete, but head-to-head victories against the greatest of all time fuel the competitive spirit, to say nothing of the ego.
Mickelson finished 2009 2-for-2 against Woods, winning the Tour Championship with Woods watching in the group behind him and the WGC-HSBC Champions, where the world No. 1 seemed to be playing via an avatar.
It’s why Mickelson went to Dave Stockton Sr., swing coach Butch Harmon and trainer Sean Cochran. Why he began his offseason workout regimen earlier than ever and spent more time at the Callaway test facility than some salaried employees.
“This is as hard as I’ve ever seen him work,” said Cochran, who has been with Mickelson since 2003. “You could see he was really motivated.”
Nor did one need to be Dr. Phil on Wednesday to see Mickelson was at the far end of the emotional compass from Woods. Nos. 1 and 2 in the World Ranking never seemed so far apart.