Golf’s Leaderboard Not Changed

Mickelson’s ability to balance his priorities may spur him on to even more. AP photo

The simple storyline of The Open Championship was that golf’s biggest stars have suddenly swapped roles. Tiger Woods, at one time unbeatable, is a shell of his former self and unable to contend in majors. Phil Mickelson, once the victim of so many Tiger charges, has suddenly reinvented himself to become the game’s most complete player.

Great stories, just not true.

Mickelson was magnificent Sunday at Muirfield. He assaulted a brown and battered course that forced nearly the entire field into reverse. While others succumbed to the pressure and conditions, Mickelson crafted one of the greatest closing rounds in history.

His Sunday 66 included a back nine 32 with 26 putts, and four birdies on the final six holes. It was a Tigeresque performance when Tiger was capable of such things.

At least that’s the myth.

Perhaps no one has juggled the daunting task of managing family and golf better than Mickelson. True, his reported $47 million in annual endorsements help, but one has to make the effort. Not everyone is so inclined.

Mickelson is one of the best autograph signers on tour, is deeply involved with charities and is unique in his trick shot mastery. He is also the guy who went 0-46 in majors partly because of his unwillingness to play it safe.

If Tiger has been the era’s Jack Nicklaus, Phil is the Arnold Palmer – or more correct, the Roy McAvoy. On any day Mickelson is able to set course records, or just as easily shoot himself out of a tournament attempting a shot only he can see.

The memory of Winged Foot and Merion is just too fresh to deem him completely reformed.

Just as Mickelson has yet to prove himself free of temptation, Woods has not shown he is done as a majors competitor.

Woods is stuck in a situation only Nicklaus can appreciate – competing with one’s own legacy. Woods has not won a major since 2008 but has stayed in contention too many times to be written off.

He’s played well during non-majors – winning 13 times since. But he’s struggled in the second half of majors – shooting plus-25 in his last 14 weekend rounds. That sounds pretty bad, but it’s 2 over per 18, which isn’t awful and still good enough to maintain Tiger’s lead as the best day-to-day player in the game.

Woods was correct when he paraphrased Mark Twain following his Sunday round in Scotland saying reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated:

“It’s not like I’ve lost my card and not playing out here. So I’ve won some tournaments in that stretch, and I’ve been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven’t done it yet.” He’s right.

Will Tiger catch or surpass Nicklaus? No.

When Tiger was 32, he had 14 majors and the top spot all but assured. Five years later his body is breaking down, causing his mental game to waver. At The Open, Woods appeared passive, hoping to hang on while others gambled the tournament away. Tiger of 2000 would never allow that to happen. But this is a different Woods – still capable of winning but not chasing history.

Put another way, Woods is five wins from replacing Nicklaus as the all-time best. That is the same number of majors victories Mickelson has for his career. In other words, it will take a second hall of fame career for Woods to reach his lifelong goal. One such career is tough enough, two virtually impossible.