Mickelson's win vaulted him to No. 2 in the world rankings.
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Monday, January 23, 2012

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 [72] 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."

Not coincidentally, Mickelson's worst day in his 67-72-69-69 exhibition was Friday, when Harmon was off site, honoring a prior commitment at Georgia's Reynolds Plantation. While Woods was struggling to put anything together until a five-under-par 67 got him back to even par Sunday, Mickelson and Harmon put in extended morning sessions every day but that one.

That the results have been so immediate seems to have surprised only Mickelson, who, among other changes, is keeping his left knee bent to help restrict his hip turn and keep him from over-rotating his shoulders. When Harmon was asked if such a swing overhaul would normally take a bit longer to take hold, he replied, "It would in a normal person, but you've got to realize you're dealing with one of the most talented people ever to play the game. I mean most people would not even take this stuff to the course right away."

Mickelson not only took it to the course, he looked like a different player. Historically vulnerable to high winds, he hit a hot, low draw right through the gusts during his 67 Thursday. Without his usual morning session with Harmon, he hit it all over the course Friday but minimized the damage with only 23 putts. He was back to hitting fairways (9 of 14) and greens (12) on Saturday. With plenty of time to kill before his 2:45 p.m. tee time Sunday, he got in not only his usual work with Butch, but also a massage and some lunch. He birdied the first hole to pull even with O'Hair, and the kid from Pennsylvania never had the lead again.

When it was all over, and someone had cued the bagpipes and Mickelson had hugged his agent, Steve Loy, and his lawyer, Glenn Cohen, with whom he stayed this week, Phil 2.0 pronounced himself thrilled with his improvement, especially in light of the upcoming U.S. Open at Oakmont. He'll play the Memorial in three weeks and said he's undecided on whether or not to play Memphis, and the Stanford St. Jude Championship. It's the week before the Open, and Mickelson prefers to compete the week before a major.

He got away from that in April, resting the week before the Masters, and noted Sunday night that it didn't work out. (He tied for 24th at Augusta.) Could Phil overtake Tiger? Sabbatini was barbecued for his comments that Woods looks more beatable than ever, but he's right. Woods looked very mediocre at Sawgrass, but he's got such a massive lead in the World Ranking that it would take years for anyone to overtake him, and Mickelson wasn't about to start with any tough talk.

He'd just taken over as Players champion for the '06 winner, Stephen Ames, the guy who commented on Woods's erratic driving and then got steamrolled 9&8 at the Accenture Match Play.

"I haven't thought about [the Ranking] yet," Mickelson said. "I still have a lot of work to get my ball-striking to where I would give myself a chance to try to contend."

Such a modest comment was the smart play; notwithstanding a loose 6-iron on 18, it had been a day full of them for the newly potent Phil Mickelson.

 

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