End of an era? Woods, Mickelson try to regain form at Doral

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the 2005 Masters.
John Biever/SI

In their 26 head-to-head battles on the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods has shot an average score of 69, while Phil Mickelson has averaged 70. Woods has won a Masters (2001), a U.S. Open ('08), and a handful of lesser tournaments while playing at least one round with Mickelson. Phil has won the Deutsche Bank Championship ('07) and the HSBC Champions in Shanghai ('09) while paired with Tiger for the freighted final round.

It's not unreasonable to think that by playing together at Doral Resort and Spa on Thursday, they may remind each other of what they used to be. That's the hope of Golf Channel, NBC, and the PGA Tour, which for the purposes of sex appeal grouped the top 21 players in the world into seven threesomes for this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship.

While Mickelson has shown flashes of brilliance — his second-place finish to Bubba Watson at the Farmers Insurance Open — Woods has been befuddled. In three starts this year, he's finished T44 at Torrey Pines; got himself into contention before going 72-75 on the weekend to tie for 20th in Dubai; and lost to Thomas Bjorn in the first round of the match play championship.

At least he hasn't held any more cringe-worthy press conferences.

"His life's different right now," said Watson, one of the longest hitters in the field at bomber-friendly Doral, and more likely than either Woods or Mickelson to win this week. "Do I think he's going to be back? Yes. Right now he's worried about his kids, making sure they are in the right place in their life. When his mind gets back, yeah, he's going to be better than ever. It could be this week; it could be next week; it could be any time."

Woods has won three times at Doral, the last time in 2007. Mickelson has won once, when he took just 99 putts for the week, tying his career best, to tame the Blue Monster (and Nick Watney) in 2009. When the big lefty won the 2009 Tour Championship, and Woods took second, it seemed we were in for a long stretch of dominance by the two. Mickelson would win once more, at the HSBC, for four titles overall in '09. Woods would win five PGA Tour events, reaching 71 victories — two shy of Jack Nicklaus's total and 11 short of Sam Snead's dizzying 82, the gold standard in career wins.

Tiger and Phil's total victories since then: one — Phil's 2010 Masters.

What's happened? Oh, not much. What hasn't happened is a better question. Phil's psoriatic arthritis; the breast cancer diagnoses of his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary; Tiger's shredded and rebuilt left knee; his tabloid nightmare; his subsequent divorce; and finally his coaching change.

Tiger's also moving, finally, into a sprawling estate, which compared to the last 15 months must feel like the least stressful move in history.

"You guys are way too infatuated with those two," a Tour winner told me recently, refusing to answer a question about Woods and Mickelson.

Yes and no. The era of Tiger and Phil is certainly over — unless it's not. You can understand why it would be hard for fans and media to turn off altogether to the saga that has become their lives. The stars keep things fizzy and interesting, and few if any stars did it better than Woods, especially, and Mickelson, for the last 15 years. And now, what — it's over?

Mickelson is only 40 years old, Woods is 35. To watch them is to be reminded of one of Tiger's old corporate partners, Gatorade, and its slogan: Is it in you?

Woods has not won since the JBWere Australian Masters in November of 2009, after which his life swiftly went to pieces. Since his return at the real Masters last April, golf fans have watched him while thinking, Oh, it's in him. And then, It's still in him, right? And finally, Okay, fine, but if it's not in him, where in the name of Ian Baker-Finch did it go?

Our thoughts on Phil have been roughly the same since he won the Masters nearly a year ago and then finished second to Rory McIlroy at Quail Hollow. Mickelson at least had a physical excuse, arthritis, diagnosed last summer. Then again, maybe Woods did, too. He began to retool his swing under Sean Foley late last summer, a major undertaking. Some are starting to wonder aloud if Tiger's problems are just as much mental as physical.

Regardless, our fascination remains, so much so that the PGA Tour researched and published their fascinating history of head-to-head battles. It turns out there have been 26 of them if you count the '09 HSBC. Tiger's shot the better score 11 times and taken a total of 1,797 strokes. Phil's shot the better score 11 times and taken 1,819.

They've tied four times, and split two of their two most epic final-round battles, the '07 Deutsche Bank (Phil won as the two were paired together for three of the four rounds, including the last one), and the '05 Ford at Doral (Tiger beat Phil head-to-head, 66-69, on Sunday).

All of which may be nothing more than nostalgia. If recent history holds, fourth-ranked Graeme McDowell will shoot the better scores while Woods and Mickelson get all the attention. McDowell tied for sixth at the 2010 WGC at Doral, and is backing up his career year in 2010 with three top-10 finishes in three PGA Tour starts in 2011, including a T6, with a final-round 64, at last week's Honda Classic.

Martin Kaymer, who has been the world No. 1 for the last nine days, tied for third at Doral last year, and is coming off a short break at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where his brother, friend and dad dropped in to visit.

"It was a 30-hour trip," Kaymer said of his dad, Horst, showing up unannounced from Germany, "for pretty much 24 hours he was there."

The four played 36 holes at Scottsdale super-club Whisper Rock and supped at a nearby steakhouse, where the new No. 1 was feted with a cake and a congratulatory message written in frosting. Kaymer answered texts from old school mates, spoke to countryman Bernhard Langer — his advice: keep your inner circle as small as possible — and even got a call from Oliver Bierhoff, manager of Germany's national soccer team.

If Kaymer and McDowell falter at Doral, which is unlikely, at least one of their Ryder Cup teammates could keep Europe on top. Rounding out the top four in the world are two Englishmen, No. 2 Lee Westwood and No. 3 Luke Donald. Northern Ireland's McIlroy and fellow Euros Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Alvaro Quiros (T6 at Doral last year) bolster the formidable Euro contingent, some of whom openly yearn for Woods to bounce back, just to see what it would be like to face more than the paper Tiger.

"That would be great to go against the greatest player whoever played the game in his top form and see if I can still compete against him," Kaymer said. "I don't believe so; if he plays the same way that he played in 2000, I might struggle, but it would be nice to have that challenge."

Unless Woods can change his ways, it's a moot point. Mickelson also finds himself with much to prove. It's hard to fathom, but we've already come to the day where these two giants are fighting to remain relevant.

Kelly tries to maintain momentum
Coming off a third-place finish at the Honda Classic, Jerry Kelly will headline the PGA Tour's opposite-field event, the Puerto Rico Open at the cupcake Trump International Golf Club Puerto Rico.

Kelly, who finished in the top 10 in Puerto Rico in 2008 and '09, will be joined by defending champion Derek Lamely (third-round 63 en route to winning last year), Angel Cabrera and Angel's son, Federico.

Baker-Finch makes Champions Tour debut
Although Woods looked better in his winless 2010 than he has this year, at least his slump hasn't recalled Ian Baker-Finch, the soft-spoken Australian who went from winning the 1991 British Open to total ruin.

IBF, as he's known to friends, found a home in golf broadcasting, but after turning 50 last fall he will make his Champions debut at this week's Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach C.C. — SoCal's only oldies tour stop.

"I'm looking forward to playing and I'm nervous already," Baker-Finch said, adding that he has "low expectations" from being rusty.

He will be making his first competitive start in the U.S. since missing the cut at the 2009 Crown Plaza Invitational, where he's a past champion.

Fred Couples, who won by four strokes at last year's Toshiba and was in contention until the bitter end at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera C.C. three weeks ago, would be the favorite if not for his brittle back. He'll at least be in the field at Newport, as will John Cook, who finished third at the PGA Tour's Mayakoba Classic last month, Tom Lehman (T3 at the 2010 Toshiba) and Mark Calcavecchia, still seeking his first Champions victory and coming off a WD (back spasms) after round one of the Honda Classic.

Lee Trevino will be making his only Champions start of 2011.

Shag bag
With Cook's third-place finish at Mayakoba, a Champions tour pro has finished in the top three of a PGA Tour event at least once in each of the past five seasons. ... After stops in Panama and Colombia, the Nationwide tour will make its first stop in the U.S. for the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, March 24-27. ... Sir Bob Charles, who will turn 75 next week, shot or beat his age twice last week, carding scores of 74 and 71 at New Zealand's Queenstown Pro-Am and City of Dunedin PGA Legends, respectively. ... Brenden Pappas, 40, who finished 197th on the PGA Tour money list last year, won last week's Nationwide event, the Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open, with a birdie on the last hole of his second round. Officials tried to get in 54 holes, but players were evacuated after three holes because of lightning. The win was worth $108,000 but will not count as an official victory.

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