ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Whether he wants to or not, it’s getting harder for Phil Mickelson to hide behind Tiger Woods.
At the height of on-the-course TigerMania – which, by the way, recedes farther into golf’s rearview mirror by the week – Mickelson invented the ironclad alibi.
“It’s Tiger’s world,” Lefty used to repeat to anybody who would listen, “and we’re all just living in it.”
It was a cute way of dodging the fact that Mickelson’s game and record couldn’t stand up to Woods’ on a regular basis. And it worked well with that sheepish-boyish-impish grin that is as much a part of Mickelson’s persona as his impossibly deft flop shots and inplausibly wild tee balls.
Anyway, when Woods’ “world” imploded off-the-course in late 2009, the whole dynamic of professional golf underwent an overnight change nobody saw coming. Among other things, it meant Mickelson needed to find a new explanation.
With this year’s Masters just a week away we’re still waiting to grasp the reasons why defending champion Mickelson has underachieved so egregiously since last April. “What will Phil do next?” has officially been replaced by the more relevant question: “What did Phil do last?”
He hasn’t won since Augusta 2010. And his world ranking has dropped all the way down to No. 6. It’s tough to gauge how much his bout with psoriatic arthritis has affected his game. He says he has the condition under control. And it’s difficult to know if the aftershocks from his wife’s recovery from breast cancer are still reverberating.
For better or worse, Mickelson’s struggles have continued to take a back seat to the erratic results Tiger’s work with swing coach Sean Foley have produced. But much of the light, in the next 10 days, will shine on Mickelson.
“Even though I feel like my game is there, I haven’t put the numbers on the board that I need to,” Mickelson said at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. His plan at Bay Hill, he said Wednesday, was to work on trajectory and distance control. Positive signs arrived Saturday when Mickelson birdied four holes on the inward half and signed for a 69. Sunday brought a one-over 73 and a finish outside the top 20.
This week Mickelson will go to Augusta on Monday and Tuesday before playing the Shell Houston Open, where he tied for 35th last year.
“I feel like the year kind of starts right about now,” Mickelson said late Sunday. “It’s an exciting time.”
None other than NBC’s Johnny Miller opined publicly last week that Mickelson doesn’t really care all that much about the events leading up to The Masters. To be fair, Mickelson won’t be the only player in Houston preparing, on the range and the course, for shots more appropriate to Augusta National than Redstone Golf Club.
And to be sure, there have been Masters’ weeks when Mickelson arrived in dodgy form and played well. In 2003 he insisted he got to Augusta without a clue. “One of the worst I was ever playing going into the tournament,” he said.
He finished third. Nice “worst.”
Actually, the record book shows Mickelson had four top-10s prior to the 2003 Masters. But he did miss the cut at the BellSouth Classic the week before thanks to a Friday 79. This year he has posted just two top-10s in seven pre-Masters starts.
And the more it becomes obvious that Woods – as television analyst Brandel Chamblee put it – is no closer to finding his game “than Miami is to Portland,” the more the scrutinists will focus on Mickelson. Tiger managed just one round under par at Bay Hill.
Woods has won four Masters, same as Palmer. Nicklaus did it six times. Mickelson has “just” three green jackets. But his consistency at Augusta National is off-the-charts good. From 1999 to 2006 he never finished out of the top 10. He has placed third four times. He has come in fifth, fifth and first in the last three.
“There is no place,” Mickelson said last week, “like Augusta.”
What he did last year was pretty special: A rock-solid Sunday punctuated by golf’s shot of the year, a 6-iron off the pine straw to the 13th green Sunday. By nightfall he had won his third Masters and his immediate future swelled with promise. Then, just as quickly, the trail went cold.
Now you get the sense that if one of the game’s (ital.) arrivistes (end ital.) – a Fowler or a McIlroy or an Ishikawa or a Dustin Johnson – breaks through at Augusta, it will officially be time to turn the page.
If that happens, it will be folly to suggest Woods and Mickelson won’t win again. But the likelihood of Mickelson ever ascending to No. 1 in the world ranking looks like more of a long shot every week.
Shakespeare told us, “Time is a bloody tyrant.” And if Tiger’s time as No. 1 is done for good, Phil will no longer have a built-in excuse for why he never got to the top spot.