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It's time for Tiger-Phil showdown
Tiger and Phil have combined to win 5 of the last 6 green jackets.
By JOHN ROMANO
Published April 5, 2007
Tiger Woods gets the Green Jacket from Phil Mickelson after winning the 2005 Masters.
Maybe this is the tournament. Maybe this is the hour. Maybe this is the moment when the greatest rivalry we have rarely seen finally becomes a memory we will never forget.
It is Tiger and Phil at the Masters. A pair of celebrated gunslingers who have never shared that indelible High Noon showdown at a major.
In theory, they are the best individual rivalry in sports. Tiger Woods, the relentless pursuer of perfection. Phil Mickelson, the flawed champion of the people. They have traveled the world, and have challenged history, but Woods and Mickelson have not often landed on the same green at the same moment.
They have given us numbers - between them, Woods and Mickelson have won six of the last eight majors. They have given us speculation - their relationship has supposedly ranged from frosty to tepid. They have given us individual achievements, and solo performances.
It is head-to-head drama they have too often lacked.
"It doesn't happen that often, where we're both playing well at the same time, the same week, the same event," Woods said this week after a practice round. "It's one of the hard dynamics of the game of golf."
Most of their duels have come at a distance. Tiger winning a British Open the month before Phil wins a PGA Championship. Tiger replacing Phil as the Masters champion only to trade places again the following year.
There was the famous finish at Doral in 2005 when Woods came from two back to beat Mickelson by one stroke, but such drama has been a rarity.
Today marks the 47th time Woods and Mickelson have played in the same major, and only once have they been paired in the final group on the final day. Even in nonmajors, the showdowns are spread out years apart.
They should be the Yankees-Red Sox. They should be Ali-Frazier or McEnroe-Borg. They should at least be Judge Smails and Al Czervik.
Instead, it is almost as if they have operated in parallel universes. Woods has only recently come to acknowledge Mickelson as even worthy of his attention, and Mickelson understands his legacy pales when compared to Woods'.
"If I have a great rest of my career, and I go out and win 20 more tournaments and seven more majors to get to 50 wins and 10 majors - which would be an awesome career - I still won't get to where he's at today," Mickelson said. "So I don't try to compare myself against him."
That doesn't stop everyone else from trying.
The only knock on Woods' career has been the one thing out of his control - the lack of a major rival who can put his accomplishments in perspective.
Ben Hogan had Sam Snead. Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Nicklaus had Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.
For Woods, Mickelson appears to be his best chance. And the Masters seems to be the tournament with the greatest possibilities.
Both have games suited to the course, and both have multiple victories at Augusta. Their back-and-forth exchange of green jackets in recent years has been reminiscent of Palmer and Nicklaus in the 1960s.
"There's certainly a parallel there," Palmer said. "It's not gone on as long as Jack and I did, but it's got a definite relation to what has happened."
The anticipation for a Woods-Mickelson battle has never been higher. Unlike the early years of the rivalry, Mickelson no longer carries the stigma of having never won a major. And, unlike 2003-04, Woods has re-emerged from tinkering with his swing to become the planet's dominant player.
It is the most basic concept in sports. Or, for that matter, in life. The idea of studying, and arguing, the merits of greatness. It is the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
For too long, we have been without it in golf. Vijay Singh made inroads against Woods, but his time was brief and has passed. Ernie Els has fallen back, and Sergio Garcia never emerged.
So it is up to Mickelson. At 36, he still has several years to give legitimate chase to the 31-year-old Woods. And, even if he does not want his career to be seen only in relation to Woods, he understands the inevitability of the comparisons.
"He's most likely the best player the game has ever seen. It's been he and Jack, and to be able to play against him in his prime is a great challenge," Mickelson said. "What I want to do is win as many tournaments and as many majors as I can. And, with him in the field, it just gives it more credibility."
They tee off today, nearly three hours apart. They are not likely to chat in the clubhouse, they will certainly not dine together when their rounds are completed.
For the next three days, their paths may never cross.
But come Sunday, let's hope they make history together.