The rivalry that never was

Tiger vs. Phil could've been epic

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There’s a quirky statistic that I want to show you, but first I need to say this: Please don’t look at the stat and immediately pound out some wild email screed about my sanity. You can feel free to do that after reading the point, but in this case I would ask your forbearance and at least wait a couple of paragraphs before calling me a loon.

OK, here’s the statistic:

Top 3s in a major championship:

Tiger Woods, 24
Phil Mickelson, 23

(This lunatic is actually comparing Mickelson to Woods. Um, last I checked Woods had 14 major championships and Mickelson had like five. This guy isn’t really comparing these guys, is he? Where is the comment section? What is this guy’s email?)

OK, wait, please. There is a point to be made here, a fairly interesting one I think, and it is not a suggestion that Mickelson’s career is close to Woods’ career. Their careers are not especially close for all the obvious reasons – major championships, PGA Tour victories, scoring averages, etc. and so forth and so on and yadda yadda yadda.

But …

Mickelson is one of the 10 or 15 greatest players in history. Brandel Chamblee came up with an interesting top-15 list on Twitter, pairing Tiger and Jack on top, following them with a Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan exacta, and then going with some early stars of the sport (Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Harry Vardon), some golfers who starred in the ‘40s and ‘50s (Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke) and some more from the 1960s and ‘70s (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino). Then he came to Mickelson at No. 15.*

*Quick aside: Whenever people try to rank athletes in golf or baseball, they tend to have a strong bias against more recent athletes. I think that is because these are the two sports that connect most strongly with history. In baseball, modern players can never match up to ancient stars like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson. On Brandel’s list, only two of the 15 were born since 1950 while six players were born more than 100 years ago.

But getting back to it, let’s just say that Mickelson is the 15th best player in the game’s history – that seems reasonable. And let’s say that Woods and Nicklaus are tied for the top. That’s also reasonable.

Well, what’s the difference between Mickelson’s career and Woods’ career? What’s the difference between being one of the greatest ever and the greatest ever?

OK, now, look at that statistic above one more time. In their very different careers, Mickelson and Woods finished top 3 in almost exactly the same number of major championships.

Woods put himself in position to win 24 times. He won four of seven at Augusta; four of six at the U.S. Open; three of five at The Open, and four of six at the PGA. Look at those percentages.

Mickelson put himself in position to win 23 times. He won three of nine at the Masters, zero of six at the U.S. Open, one of four at The Open, and one of four at the PGA.

That’s it. That’s the difference between great and legendary, between terrific and unparalleled. Woods closed. Mickelson faltered. Woods was rarely challenged. Mickelson ran into players who found their best at the right moment. Woods’ crucial putts dropped. And Mickelson’s, so often, lipped out.

Just look at Mickelson’s 11 second-place finishes: Payne Stewart made a putt at Pinehurst. David Toms got up and down from the fairway at Atlanta Athletic Club. Woods ran away from Mickelson at Bethpage. Mickelson three-putted from 5 feet at Shinnecock. Mickelson lost his mind on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. Mickelson’s putting went south down the stretch at Bethpage, Part II. Mickelson went on an ill-timed bogey run at Royal St. George’s. Mickelson could not hold on to a lead at Merion. Rory McIlroy was one shot too good at Valhalla. Jordan Spieth ran away from Mickelson at the Masters.

And then on Sunday, at Troon, Mickelson at age 46 played the final round of his life, a bogey-free 65 that was so remarkable and wonderful that it reminded again and again of Nicklaus’ final round at Augusta in ’86.

And the guy playing with him, Henrik Stenson, a 40-year-old star who had spent a decade or so building up his “best player to never win a major” credentials, played even better. I think it might be the greatest final round in major championship history. Johnny Miller’s extraordinary 63 at Oakmont in 1973 has long been considered the best closing round ever, and it should be: Only five players that day broke 70.

But Miller was playing relatively pressure free golf, at least early in the round. He began the day six shots back, in 13th place. He knew he had to go out there and shoot low, and he birdied the first four holes, and began to realize that this might be a magical day. He tied for the lead by the 13th hole. There was extreme pressure, no doubt, but it was basically a wild comeback and a miraculous day.

Stenson, meanwhile, had to sleep on the lead at The Open. He bogeyed the very first hole to lose that lead. Then he had to play a virtual match play against one of the legends of golf at his very best. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but Stenson’s extraordinary round certainly ranks with anyone’s in the long history of the game.

And it left Mickelson second again. That’s was the 11th time; Tiger Woods finished second just six times. Mickelson also has more third-place finishes than Woods (7 to 4).

Why? Why was Woods almost always the guy wearing the green jacket or lifting the trophy while Mickelson’s career has been marked by the close calls, the tournaments he lost and the ones that were taken away?

It’s hard to figure. We can paper over it and just say that Woods was more clutch, but that’s a vague and imprecise answer. Would Woods have found a way to beat Stenson on Sunday? Or – and maybe this is the same question – would Stenson have not played that well if he was paired with an in-his-prime Woods? Interesting and unanswerable questions, both.

Mickelson’s career shape is obviously very different from Woods’. Here’s another quirky statistic:

Major championships by age 33:

Tiger Woods: 14
Phil Mickelson: 0

Major championships after age 33:

Tiger Woods: 0
Phil Mickelson: 5

So, we see that Woods was a force of nature unlike anyone. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs and was Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year before he won his first professional major. He won the Masters by 12 shots just months after turning pro, and he won four major championships in a row after he honed his swing (earning his second Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award), and he so utterly dominated the sport for a decade that he left the greatest players in the world defeated.

Mickelson, meanwhile, grew into himself. He was a phenom too, a U.S. Amateur champ, the last amateur to win a PGA Tour event. But that didn’t suit his personality. His magical touch around the green prompted him to try impossible – and stupid – shots. His aggressive nature pressed him to shoot for the flag when the middle of the green was the winning play. For a while, it seemed like he would show up at every major with a new strategy, a new lifestyle, a new club, a new mantra. Sometimes he would leave the driver at home. Sometimes he would use two different drivers. There was chaos clanging around in that mind.

But as he got older he found his speed. That long and easy swing of Mickelson’s held up while the violence of Tiger’s swing tore up his back and knees. Mickelson at 46 just played perhaps his best-ever major championship – he will contend again. Woods at 40, well, who knows?

The shame of the Woods-Mickelson rivalry is that it never really was a rivalry. They never quite got the timing down. It was a blast to watch Mickelson and Stenson have their own Duel in the Sun (“High Troon,” I like to call it) but it reminded that we never really had that sort of hole-by-hole, birdie vs. birdie battle between Woods and Mickelson. We never got those two against each other at their best. Yes, the smart money would have been on Woods. Still: It would have been fun to watch.