Mickelson's second major puts rivalry in focus

Updated: August 16, 2005, 3:05 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Jack Nicklaus has been challenging the lost generation of major championship duffers to make the move on Tiger Woods, the way his generation made the move on Nicklaus back in the 1960s and '70s. He has never disputed that the sport is deeper with talent now, but he swears there are too few champions fortified with the understanding of maximizing those major championship moments.

Woods Mickelson

"I had guys that were stronger players, that had more experience at winning than Tiger has against him," Nicklaus said last week. "If we have fewer players playing, they are going to win more championships. They are going to learn how to win more. So when you get a guy who is used to winning, against guys [who aren't], winning breeds winning.

"Until somebody tough comes along that all of a sudden wins a few tournaments, and believes he's going to win again the next time..."

Until then, Woods stays on an uninhibited path to Nicklaus' 18 major championships, obliterating the sport's most sacred standard. As much as anything, golf has been waiting on Phil Mickelson. He's 35 years old now, and acts and plays and talks like he's seen the light. It won't be Vijay Singh. It won't be Ernie Els. If the sport is lucky, it will be Lefty.

The PGA Championship was a huge hurdle for him. One major gets you in the club, Davis Love III had been saying. Yet two gets you on the path to greatness. If golf has benefited from Mickelson's fan-friendly disposition, it has suffered from his inability to honor his monumental talents in the majors. The way Woods has gone after Nicklaus' 18 majors with 10 of his own, would it be too much to ask Mickelson to go after Arnold Palmer's seven titles?

After all these years, all this waiting on him, maybe Mickelson has arrived. The Masters was his breakthrough, but Baltusrol ought to be his validation. Maybe it is Mickelson, who it was always supposed to be, all the way back to the 22-month-old carrying his little club everywhere with him. The beach. Pony rides. And tossing aside his teddy bear to lay it in bed with him. Phil Mickelson Sr. was remembering that little boy on Monday at Baltusrol Golf Club, feeling like his kid has finally caught up with his championship destiny.

"If Tiger hadn't been there, Phil would've been receiving a lot more recognition," Phil Sr. said. If Tiger wasn't there, yes, Mickelson would have a bigger share of major championships. Woods is there, and the sport is still best-served to see Mickelson rise and give us that better-late-than-never rivalry. Woods is waiting for his Palmer, his Gary Player, his Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

"But Phil appreciates Tiger being in the mix, what Tiger has brought to golf," Phil Sr. said.

Now, it's Mickelson's responsibility to do his part for the game of golf: Keep winning majors. This is two majors in two years. The pressure has left Mickelson, and maybe now he can embrace the chase for Woods. Maybe now it won't weigh him down anymore.

No one can call Mickelson a choker again. No one. No more making fun of his past indiscretions atop leaderboards, where the first sign of pressure inspired him to come tumbling down. In a sport of one-time wonders, Mickelson separated himself. What the 2004 Masters and 2005 PGA Championship delivered Mickelson was a belief that he could win majors in different ways: Coming from behind and holding onto the leaderboard.

This ought to move us closer to what everyone wants: Woods and Mickelson, one on one.

Woods is Nicklaus in every way: singular-minded and obsessed over winning. Mickelson is Palmer, always as concerned with his public popularity as his championship pedigree. Mickelson has always had the talent to hang with Woods, but now he has the game and the confidence, too.

If you read Johnette Howard's marvelous book, "The Rivals," a fascinating study in the dynamics between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, you'll long for a return to that kind of rivalry in golf and tennis. Nothing else would captivate the sport the way Mickelson and Woods are destined to do.

Nicklaus keeps saying that maybe the true challenger to Woods hasn't come along yet, hasn't shown his face. No one wants to wait for him. With two majors in two years for Mickelson, at a time he swears he's discovered the swing and temperament to be a majors champion over and over, maybe Nicklaus is starting to get his wish. One major gets you in the club, yes, but two gets you on the way to greatness, on the way to testing Tiger -- the way a whole generation of champions did to Jack Nicklaus.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be purchased at Amazon.com.

ALSO SEE