Since his historic win at the 1997 Masters, Tiger Woods has given golf fans everything they could ask for, except a rivalry with another player to electrify the game the way Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer did in the 1960s.
Well, I think we have that now. Phil Mickelson's tremendous play at the Masters means he's now at Woods's level. Ask yourself: Who is the best player in the world right now? It's a tossup. That means Mickelson has brought his game up while Woods has stayed at the same level. We're going to see some great competition going forward, and it's very healthy for the game. (They will square off again at Quail Hollow at the end of the month.)
Mickelson looked like he was going to challenge Woods as best player in the world when he won the 2006 Masters. Then the 2006 U.S. Open happened. Mickelson's collapse on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot, in the tournament he most wants to win, had a deflating effect. It imposed a stigma on Mickelson mentally that he couldn't shake until last week at Augusta National.
Remember, when Mickelson turned pro he had lofty ambitions. At Arizona State, he was the NCAA's individual golf champion three times (a record he shares with Ben Crenshaw). He won the U.S. Amateur, and he even won a Tour event (the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson) when he was still in college. He had every reason to think he'd keep winning on Tour, and he did. However, at age 30, Mickelson still hadn't won a major, and he realized he wasn't achieving the lofty goals he had set for himself.
He took a look in the mirror and did something about it. The only measurement of greatness in golf is "How many majors did he win?" Now at four majors, Mickelson has separated himself from all of his contemporaries except Woods, who has 14.
The rivalry between these two players is wonderful. They don't appear as friendly with each other as Nicklaus and Palmer were, but there's a reason for that. Nicklaus and Palmer were 10 years apart in age, but Mickelson and Woods are closer to the same vintage. They both come from the same place competitively, Southern California junior golf, where they both won at every level. You might say they're too much of the same kind.
I don't think Mickelson has a target number of majors in mind, but he wants history to record that he's up there with the greats of the game. Now almost 40, Mickelson probably has another six years of peak playing, and he has about 25 more chances at majors. The way he's playing he could win three or four more. That would put him in the company of Ben Hogan and Gary Player, champions who will be talked about for as long as people play this game.
I think he'll do it. Winning a major is like drinking a martini. Once you have one, you want another.
Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Eddie Merrins is the teaching professional emeritus at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Calif. He coached the UCLA men's golf team to the national championship in 1988.