Tiger, Lefty set eyes on a different prize
DORAL, Fla. -- Phil Mickelson was in more sand Sunday than lotioned-up tourists on nearby South Beach. You didn't know whether to hand him a wedge or a tube of SPF 50.
"How many bunkers have I hit today?" muttered Mickelson to his caddie Jim Mackay on the No. 17 tee box, after Lefty's drive plopped into a fairway bunker. "It's gotta be the record."
Well, since you asked. ...
It was 14, which is tough to do even if you're trying. Mickelson spent quality time in the sand on Nos. 2, 4, 6 (where he left his third shot in a greenside bunker), 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17 and 18. And just for fun, he hit a shot into the pond-side rocks on No. 10 and into the thick, Bermuda rough assorted other times.
Mickelson finished with a 4-over-par 76, his worst round of the 2011 PGA Tour season. He was so little of a factor this week that Mickelson was teeing off on No. 18 as third-round leader Dustin Johnson was teeing off on No. 1.
Two years ago Mickelson won this tournament. Now he can't do better than a T-55 (out of 66). He was 20 strokes behind winner Nick Watney.
"I've got some work to do," said Mickelson, who is playing so un-Phil-ish that he bagged his original plan to play only one more tournament between now and the Masters in early April. He announced that he'll be at Bay Hill in two weeks. "I think I need a little more competitive golf."
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods all but floated off the 18th green and into the scorer's room to record a fourth-round 66, his best performance since the second round at Dubai last month. Woods has gone from snap hooks and pop-up drives on Friday, to his first top-10 finish of the season on Sunday.
"Well, it's definitely getting better, there's no doubt," said Woods, who was cracking wise afterward. "I'm putting the pieces together."
There are a lot of pieces to reattach. Woods has a new coach (Sean Foley), a new swing (in an effort to eliminate swaying, Tiger is -- ah, never mind), a new life (divorced father), but the same high golf expectations (majors wins). Both he and Foley have taken some verbal body blows from critics.
"[As] far as feeling for him, yeah, he's never dealt with this before," Woods said. "You know, for some reason I tend to get a little bit more scrutinized than most players do [and] analyzed to the nth degree about what goes on within one round of golf."
I'm guilty of micro-analyzing Woods. He still remains the most compelling story in golf and perhaps in all of sports. His successes and failures -- and he hasn't won a thing in 16 months -- don't just move the needle, they give it electroshock.
Like it or not, Woods and Mickelson are connected like velcro to a golf glove. Woods is ranked fifth in the world, Mickelson sixth. Since June 2008, they've won the same number of majors (one each).
They played together in three of their four rounds here and the results were unspectacular. But admit it, when you look at the WGC-Cadillac results, you first want to know who won and then where Tiger and Phil finished, right?
Woods isn't exaggerating when he talks about being elected to the Scrutiny Hall of Fame. What's interesting is that Mickelson isn't always subjected to the same intense level of golf examination.
Mickelson has two top-10s this year, but has gone T-35, T-17 and T-55 in his past three outings. His game seems to be in Sleep mode at the moment. Now he's trying to wake it up in time for the Masters, where he's the defending champion.
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"I'm not shooting the scores I need to shoot," Mickelson said. "But I'm not concerned with the way I'm hitting it or any particular element of my game. I'm just not shooting the scores right now."
And this from his (and Watney's and Johnson's coach) Butch Harmon: "Obviously he was frustrated this week. He felt like he played pretty good the first couple of rounds and didn't get anything out of it at all, which has kind of been the tone of the year so far. But all his motivation and sights are for Augusta. He was hitting shots out here this week that he's going to hit at Augusta, and that's really the main thing we're working on."
That's probably not going to be in the tour ad campaign anytime soon: Watch the WGC-Championship at Doral: Where Phil works on his cut shot for No. 13 at Augusta! But the truth is, Mickelson wasn't the only player using the WGC as prep work for the Masters. Woods was too.
Like Woods, Mickelson has had to deal with his own personal family issues. His wife and mother are cancer survivors. And Mickelson suffers from a form of arthritis. So golf isn't exactly always Job One.
But don't tell that to Mickelson's followers.
"Get another green jacket, Phil!" shouted someone from behind the ropes Sunday.
"C'mon, Phil, get it going," yelled another one.
"We're with you, Phil," said another.
But the comment that counted came from the City of Doral police officer assigned to Mickelson's security detail. When Mickelson bogeyed No. 18, the cop shook his head and said, "Wow, it has not been his day."
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It hasn't been his day, week or season so far. Then again, we said the same sort of thing last year and look what happened: Mickelson slipped on another green sport coat.
"That's a special place," he said.
But Mickelson left Doral Sunday still searching for answers to his game. Thanks to that invigorating 66, Woods left here with fewer questions to his.
"Are you still on track for Augusta?" asked a reporter.
"Oh, yeah," said Woods.
"You're liking your chances?"
Big smile. "Mmm-hmmm."
Then Tiger worked the rope line and signed autographs. Mickelson, who had worked the same line about 20 minutes earlier, was long gone. Perhaps he was in the Doral locker room.
Getting the sand out of his shoes.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.