Late Saturday afternoon as the sun was tucking itself into bed beyond the crashing waves of the Monterrey Peninsula, golf insiders were having a quiet giggle to themselves over a 19th Hole double Balvenie and social media was lighting up like the Rockefeller “Don’t Call It Christmas” Tree with news that golf’s pre-eminent rivalry – Tiger and Lefty – would be teeing it up in the penultimate group on Sunday at the AT & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Sure, they were comfortably trailing leader Charlie Wi by four and six strokes respectively but as Torrey Pines and Phoenix have illustrated in the last 2 weeks on the PGA Tour, no lead is apparently safe regardless of how many holes are left – ask Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levine if you require expert opinion in this matter! Let’s be honest, Golf Fans don’t much care that Mickelson has pretty much been an observer the last couple of tournaments or that Tiger felt that opening his season in the Middle East would be the best way to test the stinging waters on a season devoted to exorcising his demons. What Golf Fans do care about is this rivalry – the two giants of the game for the last 15 years throwing it down together for only the 10th time ever on a Sunday – no having to look to the back pages of the program to work out who the latest leader was, no Bill Murray mid-round costume changes, no more focus on Tony Romo oddly hitting his targets – no, just Tiger, Lefty, Pebble Beach and us.
By mid-afternoon on Sunday, it had become blatantly apparent to all fans that only one of the participants in this so-called rivalry had received the memo. Mickelson crafted a superb 64 around the Mecca of American Public Golf having seemingly found a driver able to keep the ball in the correct time zone and afterwards claiming; “I just feel like I’m putting like I did when I was a kid, without the mind clutter and so forth.” The same unfortunately cannot be said for He Who Was Once Eldrick. It seems as though Sean Foley has created an incarnation of the Woods swing with a half-life of only 72 hours before it melts down quicker than the Wicked Witch of the West, whereby Woods returns to the knee-dip, head-bob swing which he may have originally picked up from too many loops with the “Round Mound of Rebound” known as Charles Barkley. Safe bet is Woods will likely blame Hank Haney for that too but hard to blame anyone for his slap-happy putting performance on Sunday… I think I would have given Judge Smails and Billy Baroo a better chance of making some of those par efforts!
At 40, with his 40th PGA Tour win secured – complete with trophy picture with Clint Eastwood (how cool is that!) - it appears as though Phil Mickelson has golf in the perfect perspective. The brash youngster who exploded onto the PGA Tour and earned the nickname FIGJAM (F*** I’m Good Just Ask Me) from many of his peers is a devoted family man whose wife Amy is his biggest fan judging by her “Oh my God, what a round! Are you kidding me?” as Phil came off the 18th green. His friendship with long-time caddy Jim “Bones” McKay – long considered an ‘enabler’ to some of Lefty’s more questionable on-course decisions – has evolved into enviable 1,2 punch that was able to make the most unlikely and barely believable decision to hit 4-iron off the 18th tee. There is Butch Harmon too, the one-time Tiger team member and there are rumours of a sports psychologist who may or may not be answering texts from Phil.
There is now an evident sense that the Mickelson golf game has come full circle. While the trials and tribulations of modern life take the form of libel litigation and cancer battles, the game of golf is the joy, the free release of his ridiculous talent unencumbered by once-unrealized expectation. While the US Open has remained tantalizingly out of his grasp and he will always be remembered head in hands on the 18th at Winged Foot in 2006, Mickelson’s enshrinement in the World Golf Hall of Fame has ensured his place in the game. While Tiger’s dominance through the first decade of the century may have inspired many of the younger generation on Tour to take up the game, it has been the swashbuckling joie de vivre treatment of golf on-course by Mickelson which has left the greater mark on the Dustin Johnsons, Rickie Fowlers and Rory McIlroys, who weekly pull some of the Tour’s larger galleries.
Do not think by any means that I am discounting Mr. Woods from active participation on Sundays for the remainder of this year and beyond because I’m not. However, what is glaringly obvious to all concerned is that, while Tiger may be rededicating himself in the post-Elin, post-Stevie Williams, post-Hank Haney era to the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus 18 Majors Holy Grail, there is a sense that he is very much the lone wolf out there… Tiger vs. The World. While press conferences and one on one interviews with Peter Kostis and the like are full of the expected huff and puff, there has been very little in the way of weekend ‘blow the house down’ as yet. The Joe LaCava relationship hasn’t looked completely comfortable just yet and although my years as a teaching professional are long passed, I still recommend holding on to the club throughout the swing as a valuable tool for solid scoring. Expect Tiger to continue to build on these near misses as we close in on Augusta because those whose Nostradamus barometer is pointing at No More Majors are going to be sadly disappointed - if not this year then sometime soon.
Sports Fans – My apologies for missing last week and a good Super Bowl rant but on early February 6th GMT, my grandfather George Olsen passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of 95 in Glasgow. My greatest memories of him will be endless hours wandering the rooms of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and challenge matches at the Knightswood Pitch and Putt. This one’s for you, we will miss you.