Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Tiger-Phil duel whets Masters appetite

Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 2:45 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 4:33 AM
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For all the intrigue generated by some fresh faces in golf the past couple of years, nothing injects life into a season like an old-fashioned Tiger-Phil duel.

Tiger Woods (left) and Phil Mickelson generated a buzz at Pebble Beach that is likely to carry all the way to April's Masters.  ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tiger Woods (left) and Phil Mickelson generated a buzz at Pebble Beach that is likely to carry all the way to April's Masters.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods reprised their long-standing rivalry with another final-round pairing at Pebble Beach on Sunday, and the result was as predictable as it was shocking.

While the odds would have been astronomical had you bet on Mickelson smashing Woods by 11 strokes in a brilliant rally from six shots off the lead to win for the 40th time in his Hall of Fame career, you could easily have guessed the kind of energy the matchup would produce.

Television ratings for the annual celebrity pro-am rocketed to 5.1 – nearly double last year’s numbers and the highest for the ol’ Crosby Clambake in the 15 years since Mark O’Meara held off Woods and David Duval just two months before Woods’ record-breaking victory in the 1997 Masters Tournament. It peaked with 8.4 million viewers and averaged 7.4 million – the most watched final round for a non-major since Woods won at Torrey Pines in 2008.

While everybody seems quick to draw conclusions from Sunday’s duel – in which Mickelson looked like his vintage self in a bogey-free 64 that seemed to come out of nowhere, and Woods looked a shadow of his former glory in yipping his way to 75 – the only sure thing to come out of the showdown is some pre-Masters buzz.

Mickelson and Woods have collected seven of the past 15 green jackets presented and are traditionally locks to be in the mix every April on a course they routinely play better than anyone else. Even when they haven’t walked away with the prize, they’re rarely out of the mix on Sunday.

Now their rivalry has taken on a whole new dimension in 2012. In some ways, they are golf’s comeback kids – even though they are far from being kids any more.

Mickelson’s performance Sunday at age 41 has eased doubts of his game being in inexorable decline. He’s dealt with enough off-course distraction the past two seasons regarding his wife’s cancer as well as his own arthritis that hit him shortly after winning the 2010 Masters. Some critics have gone so far as to write him off as an aging star that has ceded the stage to a new generation of gifted players.

But Mickelson’s unpredictability has always been one of his most intriguing traits. He might miss the cut this week at Riviera or he might get on the kind of roll that nobody in the world, including Woods, is capable of stopping. When he’s making putts like he did Sunday, his high-wire act is magnificent. And like the man he’s most compared to, Arnold Palmer, Mickelson likes the even years at Augusta and could easily tie the King and Tiger with a fourth green jacket in April.

As good as Mickelson was Sunday, Woods was awful. He seemed to be poised to break out of a two-year funk with his first official tour victory since 2009. But his putter let him down again, missing three times inside of three feet. When it mattered, he dropped a shot to Mickelson on six consecutive holes from 4 through 9. It was the fifth time in a row he’s lost to Mickelson when they’ve played together.

Be careful making judgments. Based on his lethargic demeanor and pace and the frequency of his visits to the port-a-potties on Sunday, there was a great suspicion from the media in attendance that Woods wasn’t at full strength (though he predictably denied it after the round).

Woods is showing great improvement, but he still has something to prove in the coming months as he tries to regain his standing as a closer. In a season when no lead seems safe on Sundays, Woods is no different than his inexperienced peers. In many ways, it’s more entertaining than the days when victory was a robotic impulse for him when he reached for the red shirt in his wardrobe.

But Woods is not alone in his quest to find his old self and be ready for Augusta. The next six weeks are set for the most dynamic Masters qualifying spree in memory.

Among the bubble players seeking a top-50 invitation at the conclusion of Bay Hill are two of the biggest major players for more than a decade – Retief Goosen and Ernie Els.

Goosen, who hasn’t missed the Masters since 1999 and finished second or third in Augusta four times, is currently clinging to the 50th spot. Els, a Masters regular for 18 years since 1994, has to make up significant ground from No. 65 and might have to get through the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood or Rory McIlroy in the first round of next week’s WGC Match Play to ignite a charge.

The South African pair with five major wins between them aren’t the only intriguing hopefuls on the Masters watch list. Resurgent Scotsman Paul Lawrie, the 1999 British Open winner, leaped into the top 50 with a victory in Qatar and ranks 45th. Japanese superstar Ryo Ishikawa is outside looking in at No. 53. Italian teenager Matteo Manassero is lurking at No. 61. Recent Euro Tour upset winners Robert Rock (who beat Tiger in Abu Dhabi) and Rafael Cabrera-Bello (who rallied past Westwood in Dubai) are ranked 58th and 60th. A couple of guys who won back-to-back in their native countries – Greg Chalmers in Australia and Branden Grace in South Africa – are still in need of another big score to earn Augusta bids.

At this stage of the season, everything points to Augusta and the focus gets bigger with each advancing week. Phil and Tiger just lit the fuse a little early with a West Coast preview of what’s to come.

Comments (15) Add comment
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Jake
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Jake 02/14/12 - 06:27 pm
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I have said this before when

I have said this before when discussing Tiger for the last couple of years, he will never win again on the PGA tour. I had to chuckle when Faldo was proclaiming Woods the champion of the AT&T on Saturday. What foolishness. I am a fan of Tiger but it is obvious that he lacks what he used to have to finish off a tournament. Quite simply, he cannot putt like he used to. Or at least for a 4 day tournament. So we will watch him get into contention, or not, but he will keep folding like he has been doing. BTW, I was there at the tournament on Sunday and his body language and demeanor suggest that he is tired. Tired of being in contention and failing. The walk to the second tee was revealing with his eyes to the ground. Right then I knew this was not going to be his day, especially when I saw the postings that he was going to be paired with Mickelson. It was a good run and it was fun to watch him dominate but those days are gone.

seenitB4
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seenitB4 02/14/12 - 06:50 pm
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Jake...he probably doesn't

Jake...he probably doesn't want it like he used to....the thrill is gone....been there done that kind of feeling.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 02/14/12 - 07:20 pm
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Jake, if you truly believe

Jake, if you truly believe Tiger will "never win again on the PGA tour," I would be happy to take the opposite in a wager. I believe you'd be paying out before the spring is done, much less the year (or career).

faithson
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faithson 02/14/12 - 08:54 pm
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I'll put in with Scott. I

I'll put in with Scott. I find a season of golf with Tiger and Phil playing up to their talent, some great Sat/Sun afternoon entertainment. Gotta love these new flat screens when it comes to golf. good article.

Jake
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Jake 02/14/12 - 09:29 pm
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OK Scott, you are on. I am a

OK Scott, you are on. I am a Tiger fan so I hope I lose. I believe you have my email so if you are game, I will wager $50 that he will not win a PGA event between now and the conclusion of the PGA championship in August. I hope this brings him some good luck and it will be the best $50 I ever lost. If I win then you must write an article about how I bested you.

Jake
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Jake 02/14/12 - 09:33 pm
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BTW, I saw you on the tube

BTW, I saw you on the tube the other day and you look more "mature" on TV. Moustache?

etlinks
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etlinks 02/15/12 - 06:42 am
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Good article Scott and I

Good article Scott and I agree with Jakes 6:27 pm comment except I believe Tiger will win on the tour this year. Putting is the key and maybe he needs to trust his caddie for some help on the greens.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 02/15/12 - 08:27 am
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Jake, as the Dalai Lama told

Jake, as the Dalai Lama told Carl Spackler, "there'll be no money." But if Tiger doesn't win before the PGA I'll acknowledge your superior analysis and prognostication in some digital fashion. So you've got that going for you, which is nice.

Jake
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Jake 02/15/12 - 10:12 am
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Scott, OK, no dough. But let

Scott, OK, no dough. But let me send you something from out here in California. Are you a wine drinker? And I saw you on the Golf Channel the other day talking about Tiger's streak of 7 years without missing a cut. Awesome stat that I was not aware of.

JWNRTJ
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JWNRTJ 02/15/12 - 03:08 pm
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Seven years without missing a

Seven years without missing a cut? Off the top of my head I can think of the 2006 US Open, the 2009 Open, the 2011 PGA, Quail Hollow in 2010. Nice article anyway, as always.

David Parker
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David Parker 02/15/12 - 03:43 pm
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He's Tiger and he's due. Bad

He's Tiger and he's due. Bad thing to bet against Jake. Should have limited it to "win a Major". I do see the problem with his putting. Once he gets his mind out of his hands and away from trying to be Tiger, the putts will fall.

Jake
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Jake 02/15/12 - 05:03 pm
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JWNRTJ, His 142 consecutive

JWNRTJ, His 142 consecutive tournament cuts started in 1998 and ended in May of 2005. It will be a mighty long time before someone will be able to top that, if ever.
David Parker, I am hoping my bet will work against me because everytime it looks like he is finally going to break through, he falters. So now when he falters I will have at least the bet to comfort me.

dstewartsr
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dstewartsr 02/15/12 - 05:20 pm
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DK, DC, as far as it goes,

DK, DC, as far as it goes, but the last thing I saw in the paper was the same ol'-same ol' which was the actual winner's face was nowhere and Tiger's mug headlined the article. Is this sportswriter bro-mance ever going to end?

JWNRTJ
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JWNRTJ 02/15/12 - 06:15 pm
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Jake, forgive me. For some

Jake, forgive me. For some reason I was thinking of the last seven years. My mistake.

Jake
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Jake 02/15/12 - 06:58 pm
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No problem JWNRTJ, I should

No problem JWNRTJ, I should have stated that information in the original post. Just like the Golf Channel show that Scott was on the other night someone compared that streak to DiMaggio's hitting streak. Speaking of DiMaggio, I talked to a person today that met him at a golf course near here a few years ago before he died and shook his hand. He said DiMaggio had huge hands and thought that was why he was such a good hitter. My thought was that he shook the hands that felt off Marilyn Monroe.

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