Originally created 06/19/02

A contender gets closer to a championship



FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Add their scores from the last six major championships, and Phil Mickelson is two strokes better than Tiger Woods.

Count their trophies, and it's no contest.

Woods has contended in three of the majors played since 2001 and won them all in various fashion - the magnificent battle at the Masters last year; another green jacket in April when no one mounted a challenge; a wire-to-wire win in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, despite a final round in which he used his putter 38 times.

Mickelson has contended in five of those majors, and all he gets are more questions about why he can't win the big one.

Here are a couple of reasons:

- He never has been in the lead after 54 holes in a major.

Mickelson spotted David Toms two strokes at the PGA Championship, and put himself in an even tougher predicament at the next two majors - four down to Woods at the Masters, five down to Woods at the U.S. Open.

- He has thrown away shots when he can least afford it.

Mickelson's three-putt bogey on the 16th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club gave Toms the lead for good. At Bethpage, Mickelson drove into the left rough on No. 16 and failed to save par from a bunker. He was three strokes behind, but his bogey made the final holes that much easier for Woods.

- He is a victim of bad timing.

He had the lowest 72-hole score in PGA Championship history until Toms holed a 12-foot par putt to finish one stroke better. It also has been suggested to Mickelson, who is 5 1/2 years older than Woods, that he was born in the wrong era.

"I don't see it that way," Mickelson said before the U.S. Open began. "I see it as a wonderful opportunity to play against him and try to beat him. It's been difficult to have success against him. But what an opportunity."

Woods and Mickelson joined exclusive company last week.

Woods won his eighth major, tying him with Tom Watson for fifth on the all-time list behind Jack Nicklaus (18), Walter Hagen (11), and Gary Player and Ben Hogan (nine each).

Mickelson finished in the top three for the seventh time in a major, tying him with Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper for most among players who never have won a Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship.

The seven majors in which Cooper did his best were won by seven players - Horton Smith, Henry Picard, Tommy Armour, Olin Dutra, Tony Manero, Ralph Guldahl and Hagen. Only Hagen and Guldahl won at least three majors in their careers.

Mickelson has lost three of his last four majors to one guy - Woods. The other winners were Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Payne Stewart (all with at least three majors) and Toms.

Despite another disappointment, Lefty is on the right track.

He does not find consolation in losing to the No. 1 player in the world, but in how much he appears to be closing the gap.

Woods always says the key to winning is to keep putting yourself in contention. Mickelson has been within five strokes of the lead going into the final round in five of the last six majors. No one else can say that.

"There were huge steps to catch up with Tiger," Mickelson said, noting that Woods had won a Masters at 18-under 270 and a U.S. Open at 12-under 272. "It's difficult to compete with a player of Tiger's caliber, but I've been able to do it the last year or two.

"I haven't been able to win, but I'm closer."

Woods is not best friends with Mickelson, but he knows good golf. That's why he was astounded when someone asked if he was amazed by the lack of serious opposition in the final round at Bethpage Black.

"What were you watching?" Woods replied. "Phil played great. There's only going to be one winner, but Phil played just an absolutely fantastic round of golf. Phil made a mistake at the end, and so did I. But I was able to hang in there throughout the middle part of the round to give myself a cushion."

The middle part of the tournament is what hurt Mickelson.

He bogeyed three of seven holes during one stretch in the second round, when he had a 73 to fall eight strokes behind. He bogeyed three of his first five holes on Saturday, when Bethpage Black was vulnerable, and was 10 strokes behind at that point.

Sixteen holes later - after Mickelson had played No. 3 in the final round - he had cut that 10-stroke deficit to two. He never got closer, but that should have answered any questions about his heart or desire.

All he needs to work on now is the final score.



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