Tiger-Phil showdown could make '08 U.S. Open a classic

Is a 72-hole battle between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at this week's U.S. Open too much to ask for? ESPN.com's Jason Sobel and Bob Harig discuss that topic and more in their weekly e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

Originally Published: June 10, 2008
ESPN.com

Why not here? Why not now? Those are the questions our experts ponder about a potential Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson showdown this week at the 108th U.S. Open.

The No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world are paired together Thursday and Friday, but wouldn't a 72-hole battle for the title at Torrey Pines be a major championship for the ages?

ESPN.com golf writers Jason Sobel and Bob Harig discuss these possibilities and more in their weekly e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

There is no lack of story lines entering this week's U.S. Open, Bob. How will Tiger Woods fare in his return from knee surgery? Is this finally the major championship in which Woods and Phil Mickelson battle head-to-head down the stretch on Sunday's back nine? Just how fierce will Torrey Pines' South Course be after the USGA gets its hands on the place?

Everything in golf often begins and ends with the No. 1-ranked player, so let's start with Tiger's pursuit for his 14th major after an eight-week hiatus. I think we'll see the very same Woods who was playing so well before the scope on his left knee. Which is to say, he definitely will contend for the title and though he might not win, it won't be because of the injury. Your thoughts?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

It might not be because of the injury, but indirectly, the knee surgery he had April 15 will be a big factor. You and I both know it is dangerous to ever doubt Tiger. But his long layoff has created exactly that: doubt. Let's say the knee problem has no effect on his golf swing this week at Torrey Pines. What about the long layoff, the lack of competition and coming back at one of the most brutal venues anywhere?

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Sure, but I tend to believe the long layoff and his propensity for dominating at this venue (six career Buick Invitational wins) will sort of balance each other out, leaving us with the same familiar player who already is stalking Jack Nicklaus' career majors record. Of course, when last we saw Tiger, he was afflicted with short-game-itis; at Augusta National, he got up and down for par or birdie only 4 of 23 times from 50 yards and closer, according to his numbers. That had nothing to do with the knee. You and I both know he could hit the ball better this week than ever before, but if you can't putt, you can't win. That goes for everybody.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

You're right, but should we expect him to hit the ball better than he did this spring when people were talking about him winning the Grand Slam? Or putt and chip better after a long layoff? I suppose you can argue that his short game -- which is the only thing he could work on there for a while -- might even be better than it was pre-surgery. But you just wonder about the lack of competitive rounds. I say that, though, and nothing would surprise me with Tiger.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Well, the last time Woods was paired with Mickelson, he lost by one stroke in the second-to-last pairing of the Deutsche Bank Championship final round, as Phil took the title on Labor Day. They'll play at least 36 holes together this week (with Adam Scott starring in the role of third wheel), thanks to the USGA.

I've already been asked this question a handful of times: How will this pairing affect Tiger and Phil? My response: Not one bit. Each guy is accustomed to supersized galleries and plenty of us media folks staring him down while he plays. Having to share a tee box with each other won't mean a thing once play begins Thursday.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

They probably will be on opposite ends of that tee box -- although Phil might be trying to catch a glimpse of Tiger once in a while for comedic value. Remember when he disclosed that his coach, Butch Harmon, had let him in on a few Tiger secrets? Phil wouldn't divulge the information, but he did seem to take some glee in having it.

Nonetheless, you are correct. These guys won't be bothered at all. They've been there, done that, and it would be hard to think that being grouped together will affect them, for good or bad.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

As to how it will affect the tournament … well, wouldn't it be something to see those two go 72 holes together, playing in the final pairing on a Sunday afternoon at a major for just the second time? If it's ever going to happen, this might be the place. Tiger and Phil both grew up playing junior golf at Torrey Pines and have combined to win nine Buick Invitational titles here over the years. Then again, this isn't exactly the same course we're used to seeing in January, is it?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

No, we won't see the winning score of 19-under that Tiger shot in January. We likely won't see the 11-under that runner-up Ryuji Imada had, either. There are some major differences, such as the speed and firmness of the greens. And there are some subtle ones, such as shaved banks and chipping areas that didn't exist at the Buick. Still, Tiger and Phil have an advantage here. They know the course, the wind, the greens.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I tend to agree with you on all fronts. (Scary, I know.) Look, experience won't be a major factor here, but it's better than having no experience, right? As you said, knowing the wind and greens is beneficial, as are familiar sight lines off the tees and knowledge of where to miss and where not to. Angel Cabrera and Geoff Ogilvy have owned winning scores of 5-over-par at this tournament each of the past two years; factoring in that this course is a par-71 instead of 70, I think 1-over is a safe bet to take the title.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

I think they are going to go under par this time. Not by much. But still under par. Winged Foot and Oakmont were brutal, hence the 5-over-par winning scores. Torrey Pines might be brutal for Torrey Pines, but having that one extra par-5 will help with the red numbers. As will this mist that is in the air. There will be a hint of moisture in the greens, and maybe that makes a difference. But let's not get carried away. It's going to be tough out there.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Hey, maybe a long hitter like you doesn't think it'll be too brutal, but at 7,643 yards, this will serve as the longest venue in major championship history. Yes, I know the USGA's Mike Davis has stated that it will never play more than 7,400 or 7,500 yards in any one round, but that's still a few hundred yards longer than any recent U.S. Open course. I know they'll temper conditions with rough that isn't as lengthy and perhaps greens that aren't as fast, but in my book any venue of that distance is pretty brutal -- and I'm guessing any player who averages less than 290 off the tee agrees.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Oh, don't get me wrong. It will be brutal. Maybe just not as brutal as we've seen in the past two years. There is usually somebody who gets it going, even at a U.S. Open. And true, the course is incredibly long. But it is also dry and firm. And that should mean players who keep it in the fairway will be able to get it out there. That doesn't mean they'll be firing wedges into par-4s. But I think we'll see some better, if not great, scoring.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Low scoring is good; competitive tournaments are better. If we can get another sweatfest -- and in prime time for much of the country, no less -- this tournament will be considered a success. Get Tiger and Phil in the mix, and we could be in for an all-timer.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

With those two in the hunt, the winning score could be 10 over or 10 under and it wouldn't matter. The golf world has been craving a Phil-Tiger showdown in a major. Both are from Southern California. Both know Torrey well. Both have won here. Why not?