The 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach. Call it the Last Waltz, one final chance for golf’s longest running soap opera to deliver an ending it promised but never delivered. Tiger and Phil. Phil and Tiger. A clash of generational talents that burned brightly in the imagination for 20 years but never truly spoke its name.
There were occasional scrimmishes on the PGA Tour but never a Sunday afternoon battle in a theatre of dreams like Augusta, St Andrews or Pebble. Tiger was the problem. His brilliance in the glory years reduced the notion of rivalry with Phil or anyone else to a theoretical concept. In the seven years stretch from the 1997 Masters, when both players were building a PGA Tour record that would cement their reputations as all-time greats, Tiger won eight majors. Phil didn’t win his first until the 2004 Masters.
Mickelson went on to win four more Majors but never forgot his place as the second fiddle in the Tiger and Phil Orchestra, deferring to his fellow Southern California rival when it came to questions of record, of legacy, of impact on the wider golfing landscape.
“We all owe him (Tiger) so much. He made us all so much money,’’ he said. While others insisted on framing his on-course relationship with Woods as a rivalry he was in no doubt about where the balance of power lay: “He owned me.”
That balance shifted in the second decade of their relationship as injury and personal upheaval took its toll on Woods. Mickelson gained the upper hand when they were paired together on the PGA Tour, winning just over half of their match-ups. Lefty’s most crushing win came at Pebble Beach in 2012 when he was drawn with Woods in the final pairing of the AT&T Pro-Am and hammered him by 11 shots, 64 to a miserable 75.
Both players have achieved plenty since then, including major championships (Mickelson at Muirfield in 2013, Woods at Augusta just a couple of months ago) and PGA Tour wins. Mickelson won Pebble early this year, while Woods, his Masters victory aside, has been a regular presence on leaderboards. They remain relevant, if no longer dominant. But for how much longer will that relevancy last? The coming four days at Pebble will offer an answer.
For all that Koepka and McIlroy are rightly pre-tournament favourites, the two old stagers arrived at this famous Californian venue brimming with confidence. With good cause. Pebble has proved fertile ground for both. Woods won the 2000 US Open here with a performance widely seen as the greatest in Major championship history. Mickelson has won here five times in all.
Most recently, Wood was last seen at the Memorial tournament tearing through the field on Sunday afternoon on his way to a top-10 finish and purred through the post-round interview. Mickelson has missed four of his last six cuts on the PGA Tour. He last seen making a hole-in-one in the back garden of TV presenter Jim Natz, who has a replica of Pebble Beach’s famous seventh hole at his home next door to this week’s venue.
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On the face it, Woods chances are stronger and it can be taken as given that he will be there or thereabouts on Sunday.
But for Mickelson, the week has the feel of the last-chance saloon. He turns 49 on Sunday, three years older than Nickalus when he became the oldest man to win a Major at the 1986 Masters. He can be considered ancient in the context of the of the modern game. Time is against him. But what of karma?
He has tasted victory here. He has family ties here (his grandfather Al Santos was one of Pebble’s original caddies, back in the 1920s). Most importantly, the golf course this week might have been set up with him in mind. It is short by modern standards at just over 7000 yards and the rough might kindly described as agricultural. The USGA has taken the driver out of the players’ hands – a blessing for Mickelson, who ranks as one of the least accurate drivers on the PGA Tours.
He, and everyone else, will be hitting irons off many tees, placing the onus on approach shots, a statistical category where Mickelson has always ranked highly, even during stretches of poor form overall. Even if he finds himself in the rough, his chances may well be enhanced. His brilliance around the greens is the stuff of legend but less renown is his talent for playing from the cabbage.
As Golf Digest resident statistician dryly pointed out last week: “Mickelson’s been one of the best approach players from the high grass over the last decade, ranking 16th or better five times in rough proximity. Even this season, which has been a bit of a struggle, he ranks 28th in the category, and sixth from the right rough.”
In short, the USGA (Mickelson’s nemesis at Shinnecock last year) has set up a golf course that Lefty might have set up for himself. There is irony in that, but there is also a bucket-load of hope. Six times Mickelson has finished second at the US Open. It remains the one major championship he has yet to win, the missing piece in his career Grand Slam.
It is impossible to believe he will ever have a better chance, impossible to imagine that he won’t somehow play himself into contention on Sunday.There is distance between contending and winning, and that road will be congested with the likes of Koepka and Johnson, McIlory and Spieth.
All would be worthy opponents coming down the stretch but there is only one player the watching world, and perhaps Mickelson himself, would like to see enjoin the battle.
Tiger and Phil. Phil and Tiger.
Let us pray that this is week the greatest rivalry in modern golf finally speaks its name.