Commentary

Phil Mickelson's virtuoso performance

Originally Published: February 12, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The heckler's voice somehow cut through the Sunday noise from the 25-deep gallery, the champagne-and-cheese crowd in the luxury suites and the folks seated in the grandstands that curl around the 18th green at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

"Hey, Tiger," said the man, leaning toward the railing of the reserved seats, "you'll never be as good as Phil!"

A smattering of boos silenced the heckler. Meanwhile, the stone-faced Woods didn't break stride as he walked toward the scorer's trailer to record a brutally disappointing 3-over-par, final-round 75 to finish tied for 15th in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The only thing missing was yellow police tape around Woods' scorecard.

Woods began the day 4 shots out of the lead and 2 strokes ahead of Mickelson, the only player whose talent has long rivaled that of Tiger's. When they walked off that 18th green late Sunday afternoon, Mickelson had won the 40th tour event of his Hall of Fame career and kneecapped the talk of a Woods resurgence.

Mickelson didn't just win the tournament, he slung it to the ground and put a half-Nelson around its neck. The rest of the field got windburn by how fast Mickelson zoomed up the leaderboard.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Jason O. Watson/US PresswirePhil Mickelson's bogey-free 64 on Sunday in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am bested Tiger Woods by 11 shots.

His bogey-free round of 64 was the lowest of the day. He won by 2, beat Tiger by 9 and outshot him by 11. And it wasn't that close.

"Well, I'm just very appreciative of what he's meant to the game of golf over the years and, as I've said over the years, I don't believe anybody has benefited more from what he's done for the game than myself," Mickelson said.

It almost sounded as though Mickelson was talking about Tiger in the past tense. But that's not true. Not to go all "A Few Good Men" on you, but Phil wants Tiger on that wall. He needs Tiger on that wall.

Mickelson said Woods "inspired" him, which is a polite way of saying he wants to kick Tiger all the way back to his massive Florida estate. They are not friends. They're respectful adversaries and always have been.

"I know he wanted that pairing," said Mickelson's wife, Amy, the human smile. "He loves to play with Tiger. He loves it."

But when you asked her why he loves it, there was a long silence and several "Uh's," followed by nervous laughter.

"Why does he love to play with Tiger?" she said. "Because they have a history. I'm sure Tiger wanted to play with Phil, too. Let me put it that way."

Understood. It's this simple: Woods and Mickelson measure each other in ways no other two players do in the golf world. Woods is Apple. Phil is Samsung. Or maybe it's the other way around these days.

This was going to be Tiger's breakthrough tournament, the week when he and his confidence started dating again. Instead, it turned out to be Mickelson's breakthrough performance of 2012.

"It's one of the more emotional victories for me that I've had," Mickelson said. "And the reason is that I've had some doubts these last couple of weeks, given the scores that I've shot. … So this gives me a lot of confidence and erases the doubt."

There's no way around it -- Mickelson had sort of stunk it up in the three tournaments he had played this season. There was the T-49 at the Humana Challenge, the missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and the T-26 at the Phoenix Open. And in each of those tournaments, Mickelson put up some ugly numbers, including a 77 at the Farmers.

He spent time with a sports psychologist. He decided to quit overthinking the mechanics of his putting stroke. He listened to Amy, who arrived here in time Friday to find her husband in full "mopey" mode during his second round at Monterey Peninsula.

"Come on now," she told him. "Cheer up. Let's go make some birdies."

And he did. His attitude did a 180. He began feeling good about himself and his game.

"Phil's a big-stage kind of guy," said Mickelson's longtime friend and caddie, Jim MacKay. "He loves playing with Tiger."

In his right hand, MacKay clutched the rolled-up flag from the 18th green flagstick. This win meant more than usual. It moved Mickelson ahead of Tom Watson and Cary Middlecoff and into ninth place in all-time PGA Tour victories. Six more wins and he passes Walter Hagen.

And he won it at Pebble, the same place where his grandfather once caddied. Even sweeter, he won it with an overpowering performance that reduced Woods to an afterthought. It wasn't a major, but on some level, it felt like it.

"I'm not that surprised, no," MacKay said of Mickelson's career final-round low at Pebble.

Did I mention that when Mickelson and Woods have been paired the past five times in the final round, Phil is 5-0?

"Before, I got spanked pretty good," Mickelson was quick to remind everyone. "Let's not forget the big picture here. I've been beat up."

Now it's Woods who is the nail, and Phil the hammer. On Sunday, Mickelson hammered the entire field.

"But it could change in one week," Mickelson said. "Watching him play today, it's going to change in one week. … I know the score wasn't what he wanted and I know he didn't putt the way he wanted to, but you could tell that he's really close and all it takes is one week."

I believe him. The question is, does Tiger believe him?

When Mickelson's final putt dived into the hole, Amy stood behind the 18th green. She pumped her right fist, clapped her hands and then waited for her husband to walk down the path leading to the scorer's trailer.

They hugged behind the giant scoreboard and Amy spoke in Mickelson's ear for a full 10 seconds. Smiles all around.

"I'm a happy girl," she told CBS' David Feherty.

This is what it looks like after a career-defining victory. One of these days, maybe Tiger will know the feeling again.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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Columnist / College Football reporter

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