By Skip Bayless
Page 2

This could wind up transcending Palmer vs. Nicklaus.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson
Donald Miralle/Getty
The dueling pair need each other as much as fans need them.

Or Nicklaus vs. Trevino or Nicklaus vs. Watson.

Or even Tiger vs. himself.

Over the next three or four years, this has the potential to become golf's greatest rivalry. Thank you, golf gods, for Tiger vs. Phil. Here are the two most talented players ever. Not the best -- that would still be Nicklaus, the all-time mentally toughest.

But now Tiger and Phil could inspire and validate one another's all-time greatness with an era of major-championship shootouts, beginning with this week's U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods, with 10 majors, obviously has a chance to rise above Nicklaus, who finished with 18. And Phil Mickelson, who has finally learned how to win majors, now has a chance nearing age 36 to challenge or even eclipse Tiger's place in history. Phil has won three of the last nine majors, including the last two.

At Winged Foot, here's hoping these two play as if they have winged feet. Here's hoping Tiger finally proves he can rally on Sunday at a major by forcing a playoff with a final-hole birdie. Here's hoping Phil Mickelson finally gets the opportunity to prove in an 18-hole Monday birdie shoot that he can win a major when Tiger hasn't had a rare off-weekend.

Please, golf gods, give us Phil staring into the eye of the Tiger on Monday. Let us see if either of these guys can be as pressure-proof as Nicklaus almost always was.

Chat with Skip
Skip stops by The Show at 1 p.m. to take your questions about Tiger, Phil, the U.S. Open -- or anything else on your mind.
I still wonder about that. But I do not question their next-evolution ability.

They're both as relatively long as Nicklaus was in his day -- and as astonishingly accurate with their long irons. They both have putting strokes that could stand up to Crenshaw's. And they both have Seve's sculptor's creativity from the trees or sand or greenside rough.

They're as blessed as we are to watch them.

Then again, I don't much care for Tiger or Phil off the course. I find it hard to root for either one as a guy. So I root for both to play great golf because they need each other as much as we golf fans need them.

May the best player -- not man -- win.

Which brings me, like their drivers colliding with their golf balls, to my point: Most fans root for Tiger or for Phil for some reason other than their games. Rivalries do that to humans.

Come on, admit it.

Tiger Woods
Travis Lindquist/Getty
Tiger last won a U.S. Open in 2002 -- when Phil finished second.

You like Phil because you're tired of Tiger's winning all the time. Or you like Phil because you think he's always a candidate for Father and Husband of the Year. You like him because he's always smiling on the course and he's always so likeable in interviews. You like him because you'd like to live next door to him and play golf with him on Saturdays.

Hey, let's be realistic, maybe you like him because he needs to wear a lot more sun block than Tiger does.

Or maybe you're a Tiger fan because you're a dad and you think you're training your son to be another Tiger. Maybe you like him because you're a mom and Tiger seems like such a nice young man in commercials and interviews. Maybe you like him because you're a minority or -- let's be honest -- because you're white and you don't think Tiger "acts black." Or maybe you like him because you're his age or younger and he's like watching a thunderstorm when he hits a great shot or a bad shot.

Phil Mickelson
Scott Halleran/Getty
Can Phil follow his Masters title with another major victory?

The truth is, that side of Tiger is the only real side either of these guys shows in public. The Tiger you see (and hear) on the course is the real guy. He can be a spoiled, temperamental fit- and club-thrower whose language can be as foul as his father's (who taught him). But the intangible greatness of Tiger Woods is that he can channel that anger into heightened concentration and resolve.

So the Tiger you see in front of a microphone or camera is basically acting. That goes double for Phil. Both are basically playing a highly trained role to give you, the upscale, golf-watching consumer, what you need: The confidence -- or illusion -- that you can trust the products they endorse because they're nice young men.

They certainly can be.

But the gut feeling here is that most Tiger fans or Phil fans would be shocked if they could become invisible and follow these two around in their private lives. This certainly isn't to say either of these guys has committed an unsolved murder. No, it's just that neither could live up to the image they've created with the media's help and many fans' gullibility.

Most fans want to believe that great players are great guys. They rarely are because our idolatry ruins them.

According to players, reporters and entourage members who know (and publicly protect) Tiger and Phil, neither guy has always been the perfect angel. They've done a lot of stuff a lot of guys have.

Both are high-stakes Vegas gamblers, and off camera Phil can drop as many F-bombs as Tiger does on the course. Before Tiger got married, he used to do Vegas with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

This is no fuddy-duddy condemnation. This is just to say that, for me, it's difficult to root for guys who aren't quite what they seem.

Phil can be an Eddie Haskell of a phony, saying "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am" to the Mr. and Mrs. Cleavers in the sponsor tents, then treating other players with arrogant condescension. That's one reason Tiger doesn't care for him. It's amazing that Phil can be so popular among fans, yet he ranked No. 8 on GQ's list of athletes most hated by their peers.

And it was mind-blowing that so many mostly blue-collar New York fans rooted so crazily for Phil at the 2002 Open at Bethpage. You thought they'd see right through this guy and his pasted-on smile. Yet maybe these Phil Phans were actually Tiger haters.

When Phil was deep in his 0-for-his-first-42 streak in majors, former player Mark Lye and I often debated his failures on the Golf Channel. I argued that his go-for-broke mentality under pressure was a form of insecurity. If he tried to pull off a high-risk, high-stupidity shot and failed, his fans would say, "Oh, well, that's the only way Phil knows how to play."

I argued that he didn't have the guts to play the proper, safe shots that would put him to position to make the winning putts.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson
David Cannon/Getty
Friends -- in front of the cameras, anyway.

Lye countered that the Phil he had been able to observe in the locker room could be intimidating almost to the point of being bully-like. (Translation: Eddie Haskell.) So why, I asked, hadn't we seen more of that on the course during majors? Had Phil worked so hard to play his nice-guy role for his sponsors -- always careful to hold hands with wife Amy when the cameras were on him -- that he had lost his bully's edge on the course?

When Phil was at Arizona State, his rivals at Oklahoma State nicknamed him The Roman, as in conqueror. Maybe, beneath that smile, Phil began to turn back into the Roman in winning his two Masters and his PGA. Maybe he finally woke up and realized he's better than just about everyone else. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Of course, the biggest competitive bully since Jordan has been Tiger. Yet here's another contradiction: In a recent Harris Interactive poll of fans, Jordan failed to win most popular male athlete for the first time in 13 years. Tiger beat him.

Yet Tiger isn't nearly that popular in the locker room. Oh, he's much more liked than Phil, yet he keeps his distance. He's still Tiger Woods, and you're not.

With media members, Tiger can be thin-skinned and vindictive. Write or speak one contrary (or objective) word about him, and he'll never give you another interview.

I don't need to interview him. But a lot of reporters' jobs depend on access to golf's No. 1 player. That's one reason Tiger is rarely criticized or portrayed objectively.

Tiger pretty much was given a pass for leaving last summer's PGA on Sunday night, when he still had an outside shot at a Monday playoff.

And after this year's Masters, Tiger announced he was taking time off to spend time with his father, Earl, who had been very sick for a long time (and who died less than a month after The Masters, on May 3). But at this stage of his career, Tiger would prefer to play only majors. So he also used his hiatus to hit Vegas in April, where he reportedly won around half a million. Then he spent nearly two weeks in New Zealand, attending caddy Steve Williams' April 21 wedding, along with bungee-jumping and driving in a celebrity stock-car race.

But no matter how few tournaments Tiger wants to play between majors, it has become increasingly difficult to bet against him. That's because his "rivals" are all so afraid of his very shadow. Sergio, Els, Goosen, Singh -- all of them, including Phil.

But Phil is the only one with the talent -- and growing confidence -- to match Tiger's.

So who cares what these two are really like off the course?

I'm rooting for what they could do for us on one of the country's great courses, Winged Foot. Give us Phil, challenging Tiger. Give us their true measure of greatness.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




Skip_Bayless
Skip
Bayless
ROOTING INTEREST