There's a reason why last Sunday's final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am captured its largest television audience in 15 years. Watching Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods go head-to-head at Pebble Beach is the next best thing to watching them square off in a major.
Mickelson played beautifully, carding a 64 to win. Tiger Woods struggled.
It's surprising because Woods had been playing better than Phil of late, and because we're still conditioned to think that Tiger always comes through in the clutch, despite looking beatable more often than not since Y.E. Yang’s 2009 PGA Championship win. Mickelson will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, but he's traditionally been the less-steady player. And recently, Mickelson’s short putting has been suspect. Whenever he faced a five-footer, you held your breath.
But last Sunday it was like we were in Bizzaro World, where Tiger missed short putts as Phil fearlessly drained par-savers and birdie tries all day long.
So now I’m wondering two things: Can Phil keep this up, and can Tiger get back to his old form?
When it comes to head-to-head matchups against Woods, Mickelson clearly has an edge now, due at least in part to some inside information from his coach. Butch Harmon long ago clued Mickelson in to Woods’s gamesmanship secrets -- walking a little slower to alter the pace of the round, hitting 3-wood after his opponent hits a driver so he can play next and make his opponent wait, putting out first so crowds are moving while the other guy still has to putt.
Harmon told ESPN radio on Monday that Mickelson and his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, now just laugh when Tiger employs such tactics.
Beyond the mental game, Mickelson told me he's excited about the way he's hitting his driver, that his misses are much more playable, and that his putting has been good even though he'd posted some high scores. The numbers back him up: Mickelson ranked No. 1 in Strokes Gained-Putting (the Tour’s new putting stat, which measures a player’s putting performance vs. the rest of the field) at Pebble Beach.
Phil has never been the kind of player who stays red hot for weeks on end, and his mission during the West Coast Swing and the Florida Swing is to get his game ready for Augusta.
Can he keep up this level of play until the Masters? I think he’s ready now, and he will be in the first week of April as well.
For Woods, who will play in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship next week, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, especially when you consider how far his game has progressed in a year. He's putting himself in contention on a consistent basis. He's hitting fairways, his iron game is getting sharp and he’s shown flashes of brilliance with his putter.
But the aspect of his game that was once his greatest strength—his ability to be clutch—can now be seriously questioned.
"Tiger was the greatest pressure putter I'd ever seen since Jack Nicklaus; there was no doubt about that," Harmon said in the same radio interview. "He made every one he had to make, every single time, and he just doesn't do that anymore. I don't put that down so much to mechanics as I do nerves."
It's impossible to know whether Tiger's inability to beat Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi or Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach is the start of a new trend, or just two speed bumps on his road to a fifth green jacket. But it sure looks like a mental roadblock, not a physical shortcoming, is holding Tiger back right now.
Mickelson, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and the rest of the world’s top players have now seen Woods squander another chance for a win. That doesn't mean Tiger won't simply outplay people in the future, but it does mean that his presence is not worth the two or three shots it used to be.
Can Tiger get back to his old form? Yes, I think he can, and he’s close. But I don’t think he’ll ever again have the psychological advantage that his clutch performances gave him in his prime.