Reviving a rivalry

Reviving a rivalry

Mickelson's stunning win at the British Open may reignite his competitive fire to outdo Tiger Woods

Reviving a rivalry

Everyone suspected the main challenge to Tiger Woods’ supremacy would come from someone whose performance arc, with all its ups and downs, could pass for an electrocardiogram. The error that most made was believing the prime contender was Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irishman who won two major titles before his 24th birthday.

When McIlroy is good, he is very, very good, and when he is bad, he is likely to miss the cut, as happened at this year’s British Open. In both his aggressiveness on the golf course and the balance he strives for off it, McIlroy is a superstar in the making, but not in the mold of the world No 1 Woods.

McIlroy is his generation’s version of Phil Mickelson, a comparison he should take as a compliment. With his come-from-behind victory Sunday at Muirfield, Mickelson supplanted McIlroy at No 2 in the rankings and energized a rivalry with Woods that has been percolating for 20 years.

Mickelson’s pro career, now in its third decade, has had more peaks and valleys than the Sierra Nevada mountain range he grew up skiing down. At 20, he was talented enough to win a PGA Tour event as an amateur, and yet, after turning pro in 1992, Mickelson needed 12 years to win his first major, the 2004 Masters.

It took him 20 starts to wear his first crown at the British Open, a tournament dear to his heart if not near to his roots. Perhaps fittingly, owing to the tournament’s status as the oldest major, Mickelson, 43, became the oldest winner since Argentina’s Roberto de Vicenzo, who was 44 when he took the title in 1967.

Mickelson has been second in the world rankings before, but never has he held the top spot. He was content, or so it seemed, with being the people’s No 1. In the time it took Mickelson to make four strikes on Muirfield’s bowling alley of a back nine, he refurbished his image and that of the sport, too, making it suddenly cool to be a golfer with a personality and a life.

Saddled for years with the perception that he was an overeager underachiever with too many outside interests, Mickelson has won five majors in the past nine years without walling himself off from the public or whittling away his interests to cut down on life’s so-called distractions.

As he waited for the final twosomes to finish Sunday, Mickelson spent part of the time signing autographs, a simple gesture that won him more fans than the hardest shot he pulled off during the tournament. With the Claret Jug finally in his possession, Mickelson can turn his sights to Woods, one of five golfers -- and the only one in Mickelson’s era -- to have won all four majors. The others are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

Woods, 37, has won more majors than Mickelson, but in the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately world of sports, Mickelson holds the edge, winning two of his five titles while Woods has been stuck on 14.

Mickelson and Woods are not close except in the world rankings. They have in common Butch Harmon, who once worked with Woods and now is in charge of keeping Mickelson’s swing well oiled. But that’s about it. They are the Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus of their day. They have such different personalities and approaches and their competitive fires are both so hot, is it any wonder they keep a respectful distance? It took Palmer and Nicklaus several years, and many tournaments under the bridge, to become the fast friends they are today.

The first time Mickelson and Woods graced the same tournament was the 1993 Nissan Open in Los Angeles, when Woods was an amateur and Mickelson was in his first full season on the PGA Tour.

The first time they played together in the final round of a major was at the 2001 Masters, where Woods prevailed to complete his Tiger Slam of four consecutive major victories.

Mickelson has said many times that Woods has pushed him to become a better player. Now we will see if Mickelson can become the wind at Woods’ back.

After signing for his 74 on Sunday, Woods was asked to assess Mickelson’s 66. He talked about the conditions being ripe for a “gettable” score for those with the confidence to challenge the rock-hard greens. “Evidently he got a pretty good feel for it and made a few putts,” said Woods, who later acknowledged Mickelson’s 66 was “a hell of a number.”

On the eve of the tournament, Mickelson, who was coming off a victory at the Scottish Open, said he knew he could make a major the second of back-to-back victories because he was the last player to do it, in 2006.

In fact, Woods in 2007 won the World Golf Championships event in Akron, Ohio, the week before prevailing at the PGA Championship. Woods and Mickelson may drive each other crazy or they may push each other to greater heights, but whatever happens, the unqualified winner will be golf.