Commentary

World's best rounding into form

Originally Published: March 15, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DORAL, Fla. -- Let's be honest. A true rival to Tiger Woods has yet to be found, despite numerous hopes and dreams for just that very occurrence. It may one day happen, it may not, but Phil Mickelson has always been the best bet in the interim.

His victory Sunday at the CA Championship doesn't suddenly make him Woods' equal, but it does again offer up the juicy possibility that maybe -- just maybe -- these two future Hall of Famers will give golf fans a reason to debate their virtues, especially heading into next month's Masters.

Mickelson's second PGA Tour victory of the year and first World Golf Championship title moved him to second in the world behind Woods. That's a place he has occupied on numerous occasions with barely a hint that he would overtake the game's No. 1 player.

But having him there is good for the game, and he has never been this close -- at least in terms of the complicated rankings formula. His rivalry with Woods has been more about popularity than prizes, and it could be easily argued that Mickelson has accrued more affection as he found himself toiling in Woods' significant shadow.

That was certainly evident to Mickelson's playing partner, Nick Watney, who battled Mickelson all weekend, his birdie putt to tie coming up one revolution short of dropping on No. 18 Sunday.

"It's kind of like playing an away game, because he's so popular," Watney said. "It's kind of like playing in a visitor's stadium. But I enjoyed it."

That Mickelson now has 36 PGA Tour titles is nothing to dismiss. He doesn't have his name on an energy drink -- and he really needed it Sunday while suffering from dehydration -- but making this year much more interesting is the fact that he leads Woods two victories to zero.

Woods was never a factor at Doral, a place where he has won three times in seven starts and has still never finished worse than a tie for ninth. He managed to squeak into the top 10 during the final round with a very steady and encouraging 68 in which he once again was unable to convert many putts but was left pleased about the way he hit the ball after such a long absence due to injury.

Asked afterward about how good it was to have him back with Mickelson playing well at the same time, Woods at first seemed as stymied as he was by the Doral greens.

"Well, I'm excited to be back playing again," he said after completing his first 72-hole stroke-play tournament since winning the U.S. Open. "It's been awhile. It's nice to get back up there."

Tiger's mind was obviously racing with how to continue with this query.

"And obviously Phil is playing a bit better now, won one tournament and obviously he's got a chance today to get another victory.

"But overall, I think the game is in pretty exciting times. We've got new, young blood coming up with Rory [McIlroy], AK [Anthony Kim], Sergio [Garcia] is playing well, you've got Paddy [Padraig Harrington] winning two major championships. Obviously with Phil and myself there, I think as a whole, I think the game is in good stead right now."

It was then when Woods learned Mickelson was suffering with dehydration Sunday and was somewhat perplexed. "Heat exhaustion or food poisoning?" Woods asked.

Informed that Mickelson had to go to the hospital Saturday night and received intravenous fluids to treat heat exhaustion, Woods couldn't resist a quip.

"Wasn't that hot, was it? Tulsa was hotter."

The reference, of course, was to the 100-degree-plus temperatures for all four rounds of the 2007 PGA Championship, where Woods won his 13th major title.

And that will likely have to do for any type of tweaking between the two of them.

Mickelson is typically deferential toward Woods, relishing the opportunity to compete in his era but focusing more on improving his own game and seeing how it stacks up.

From where Mickelson was just a month ago, it's been quite the leap. There was plenty of consternation after Mickelson started the season by missing the cut at the FBR Open and finishing well out of contention at the Buick Invitational and AT&T Pebble Beach.

Now he's won his last two stroke-play events, despite not even playing his best in the final round at either, while building enormous confidence in his long game.

"He probably drives the ball better than he's ever driven it," said Butch Harmon, Mickelson's swing coach. "He hits the occasional wayward one, but in reality his drives aren't that far off line any more. He's able to go at it very hard the way he likes to swing at it.

"We've tried to eliminate the right side of the course with the work that we've done so that he can rip it and know it's not going to go to the right. And he feels very comfortable in what he's doing now. He feels very confident. Last year he spent so much time working on his full swing that he didn't put in the time that he normally would on his short game. He's made sure he's done that in the last month. And it's paying off."

Woods still has some catching up to do. He has now played a grand total of 11 official rounds of golf since last year's Masters, and seems to get better with each one. He didn't hit as many fairways or greens during the final round as he did Saturday, but he made more putts and didn't make a bogey.

"I'm happy with the way I progressed, but not necessarily happy with the way I finished," Woods said. "I didn't win the golf tournament and wasn't in a position to win the golf tournament.

"But hitting the golf ball this week, I got better each and every day, and my feel around the greens got better and just handling the environment out there got better. I've been away so long, I figured it would take me a lot longer to get back. But this was a big week for me."

It was a bigger week for Mickelson, part of his overall plan of getting ready for the Masters, something he's been almost giddy about. Mickelson is scheduled to play in Houston the week prior to Augusta while Woods' final tune-up will likely come at the Arnold Palmer Invitational from March 26-29.

They'll next see each other again at Augusta National.

"I don't think anybody is concerned about that," Mickelson said when asked about Woods' ability to return to his previous form. "He's the greatest player of all time arguably, he or Jack [Nicklaus], and he'll get back to that level.

"I'm hoping it's in five weeks and not four."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com