PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., May 13 — It was a two-man race in the final round of The Players on Sunday, but don't believe everything you saw on NBC. Yes, there was Phil Mickelson, the winner of 30 Tour titles, including three majors. There was his caddie, Jim MacKay (a.k.a. Bones). And there was the kid Mickelson was playing against, the 6-foot-2-inch, 165-pound winner of one John Deere Classic, Sean O'Hair (a.k.a. Bonier).
But make no mistake: Mickelson's final-round 69 and two-stroke victory in the Players, his 31st Tour W and fourth major, sort of, was all about Phil vs. Tiger. The rivalry has been simmering ever since last month, when Mickelson, realizing he hadn't played well since the 2006 Masters, started working publicly with Butch Harmon, Woods's old coach.
The lefty's rock-solid round Sunday, in which he hit 10 of 14 fairways and 16 greens, didn't exactly bring the rivalry to a full boil. It'll take a mano-a-mano duel at Oakmont for that. But it did turn up the heat on Tiger vs. Phil. After a lackluster Masters, Woods was never anywhere near the lead in this Players. You'd better believe the player most prominent on his radar is not Rory Sabbatini, with whom he exchanged verbal barbs during the week, but Mickelson, who moves into the second spot in the World Ranking.
"You're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," Harmon said after Mickelson had salted away the victory with a bogey after a heart-stopping 6-iron approach shot on the 18th that almost went in the water. "He's just three weeks into this process. He's going to get a lot better. ... You know this is going to motivate Tiger to work even harder and get even better, so I think it's going to be fun."
Mickelson and Harmon tried to eliminate the right side of the course Sunday, and with the exception of the 11th and 12th holes, where Mickelson drove it into the rough, they did. In fact, his scary 6-iron on 18, after O'Hair had bowed out with a quadruple-bogey 7 on 17, was a direct result of their strategy.
"I had a three-shot lead. I wasn't too worried about the water," Mickelson said. "I felt like I could hit one at the green and not blow it way to the right. I just held onto it a little bit. But I wasn't overly disappointed because I tried to eliminate the hook today. I didn't hit one hook. In the second round  where I was struggling, I hooked it on 5 into the water, hooked it on 4 into the bunker, I hooked it on 6 into the trees, hooked it on 7 in the bunker, and today I didn't have any. I eliminated that right side, which is the key. What I didn't want to do is step up and hook it to the right. I wanted to stay with my swing."