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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
LIFE OF REILLY

By Rick Reilly

Rooting for Tiger Woods is like rooting for Justin Timberlake to get lucky, Exxon to hit a gusher, Bill Gates to find a twenty on the sidewalk. It takes no imagination. It takes no courage. What's the point? It's 1-to-5 he's going to win anyway, whether you cheer or not. Makes no difference to him. It's like rooting for erosion. Rooting for Phil Mickelson, on the other hand, is like rooting for the salmon to eat the bear. It takes faith. It takes forgiveness. It takes Tums. Mickelson is a roller coaster in an earthquake. One shot will be so inspired you'll cover your mouth in astonishment. The next will be so Spam-brained you'll slap your forehead in disbelief. It's like watching a blind guy jaywalk across Hollywood and Vine. Your fist is in your mouth the whole way.

I bring all this up because Woods and Mickelson will play side-by-side Thursday and Friday at the U.S. Open. You must choose. You cannot root for both. It's un-American.

Here's how to tell them apart: Woods has the Joe Weider body, the Iron Byron swing, the Green Beret mind. Mickelson's body leans toward Sara Lee. He's carried two drivers—one for hooks and one for slices—but none for straights. He can get it up and down out of an ice cream cart, which is a good thing, because he's there a lot. He might be the only athlete whose catch phrase is, "I'm such an idiot!" For Woods, there's almost nothing at stake this week. It will be just another hunt for just another major, his third U.S. Open and his 14th major overall. It's Year 13 of his Scorched Earth Tour, which we all know will end up with The Coolest Guy in the World owning every golf record known to man, to say nothing of every T-bill. He'll finish with 25 majors, making Jack Nicklaus look like a guy with a rental set. FOR WOODS, THERE IS ALMOST NOTHING AT STAKE THIS WEEK. FOR MICKELSON? JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING.

At stake for Mickelson? Just about everything. This is arguably the most important major of his life, the one in his hometown, on his home course of Torrey Pines, in front of all his family and friends, against the man who has caused him more heartburn than any other. He's got hopes of finally winning his first U.S. Open after four catastrophic chokes, near misses, and should-have-been second-place finishes in this baby. I ask you, couldn't you switch to Phil just this once?

Besides, rooting for Phil is so much more interesting. Tiger's in the fairway. Phil's in a lady's Prada! Tiger's on the green. Phil is banking it off a pine, a boulder and a San-o-let! Tiger makes a 2-footer for a what-else-is-new 4. Phil makes a seagoing 30-footer for a did-you-see-that 4! It's the difference between watching Dow Jones and Indiana Jones.

Look, Tiger needs this major like Yao needs stilts. There'll be a dozen more after this. He doesn't need to prove he's better than Phil. We know. Not counting Stableford or match-play tournaments, these two have entered 157 pro tournaments together. Tiger is 104-50-3 against him. That's not a rivalry. That's avalanche versus twig. That's more one-sided than a Venezuelan election.

You know, I know, Phil knows that Tiger is a god and Phil is but a serf. There's no argument. Yes, Mickelson is No. 2, but it's about as far as a 2 can get from a 1. Put it this way: Let's say Tiger's knee really bothers him this week—say it bothers him for the rest of the year—and he doesn't play the next three majors. And let's say Mickelson wins all three of these majors. That would still only get Mickelson even with Woods in the world golf ranking.

Do you sort of get what Mickelson's up against? So you could do worse than rooting for him. After all, he has a few qualities Tiger doesn't have. He signs more autographs, smiles more, tips way better. He skis better. Flies a plane better. Bets better, despite all those Vegas rumors that never were true.

I have nothing against Tiger, of course. He's the most accomplished athlete I've ever covered. He's taken us to places in golf we never dreamed. When he said the Grand Slam this year was "easily within reason," we all agreed, because it was. But it's like watching a thresher go through wheat. All that blinding brilliance, all that chewing up and spitting out, can make you a little numb.

So, while everybody feeds the big dog, couldn't you throw the little dog this one bone? Love the column, hate the column, got a better idea? Go here.