Commentary

Tiger vs. Phil: Game on!

They've always competed against each other, but the rivalry is serious now

Originally Published: April 29, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

When both your wife and your mom are battling breast cancer, and you've spent more time in hospitals than in tournaments, and your family and friends have shed enough tears to irrigate a corn field, suddenly Tiger Woods doesn't seem too intimidating, does he?

And when your marriage is in a trauma unit, and your former mistresses are National Enquirer regulars, and your legacy has been paper-shredded by your own weaknesses, suddenly Phil Mickelson isn't such a big deal, is he?

And yet here they are, Mickelson and Woods, connected by their own versions of personal tragedy. And as always, connected by golf.

Mickelson turns 40 in less than two months. Woods turns 35 in December. Together, they have played and often dominated professional golf for a combined 34 years.

Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Rob CarrThink Phil's ceremonial donning of the 2006 Masters green jacket might have rankled Tiger a little?

But with the exception of a much-too-brief period in the middle of this decade, Mickelson and Woods have been rivals without a rivalry. Until now.

As Mickelson's stature and victory total grow, and as Woods' hairline and reputation recede, now is the best and probably last chance for the planet's two best golfers to pop their rivalry back in place. And here's the thing: They want it, too.

Mickelson and Woods love the game, but they crave the competition, the action. There's a difference.

You don't think Woods would rather beat Mickelson than, say, Steve Stricker? You don't think Mickelson would rather see Woods fume in defeat than, say, Lee Westwood? Their talent makes this rivalry possible. Their addiction to winning makes it real.

Rivalries are usually built around differences. Mickelson versus Woods has its share.

Mickelson is a lefty. Woods is a righty.

Mickelson is beloved. Woods is feared.

Mickelson smiles. Woods swears.

Mickelson's game is artistry. Woods' game is will, personified.

But what gives their rivalry hope and depth has nothing to with what separates them. Instead, it has everything to do with what binds them.

Remember what Mickelson said in the press center interview room after he won the Masters two weeks ago? Asked to explain the difference between a great shot (6-iron, from the pine straw, through two trees, 207 yards to the No. 13 pin, the green jacket still in doubt) and a smart shot (punch out, like his caddie was begging him to do), he said, "I mean, a great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it."

Mickelson and Woods have shag bags full of guts. They will try any shot, anytime, anywhere.

Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonFor the rivalry to reach its potential, Phil and Tiger need each other to continue playing great golf.

Those guts cost Mickelson the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006, but they won him his third Masters this year. Those guts cost Woods the health of his left knee, but won him the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.

Woods and Mickelson are the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players in the world because they hit shots others can't, but also because they hit shots others won't -- at least, not when it matters. Their styles are different (Woods is more of a grinder, Mickelson more risk/reward), but they are tied by a willingness to make the impossible possible.

The one constant in their professional careers has been each other. Woods has often said that Jack Nicklaus' 18 career majors victories is what drives him to succeed. But somewhere in the equation is Mickelson's presence. The Nicklaus record was a clipping on a wall. Mickelson is here, a longtime and real threat to Woods' golf dominance. In fact, Mickelson has won the previous three tournaments they've played in together. And this week, they're both in the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte.

The rivalry isn't based solely on numbers. Woods has more than three times as many majors wins as Mickelson (14-4) and nearly twice as many career victories (71-38). And to think that 11 years ago, they were tied with 15 wins apiece.

No, the rivalry lives because Mickelson was -- and still is -- the only player capable of matching and surpassing Woods' level of play on a consistent basis. It happened in 2005, when Woods won the Masters and the British Open but Mickelson won the PGA Championship. It continued in 2006, when Mickelson won the Masters and should have won the U.S. Open, followed by Woods' victories at the British and the PGA.

Four years later, Mickelson and Woods find their lives turned upside down by turbulent and very different personal circumstances. Through the haze, their names remain linked.

You'd think golf would have less meaning to each of them; and in some ways, it does. But then you remember the tender scene behind the 18th green at Augusta National earlier this month, when Mickelson and his wife, Amy, embraced after the victory. The win gave her something chemo couldn't.

And you remember the awkward, emotionally charged moments when Woods made his 2010 debut at the Masters. It was so obvious that golf was his mental life raft.

They are entering the second halves of their careers now; but the game, TV and the fans still need Mickelson and Woods. And whether they admit it or not, Mickelson and Woods need each other. Now more than ever.

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.

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