Phil Mickelson has 8.56 points to Tiger Woods' 12.46 in the battle for No. 1 in the world.
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Thursday, August 01, 2013

The craziest thing Phil Mickelson has ever done in Ohio was pitch batting practice to 18 Toledo Mud Hens in an effort to make the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in 2003. The second craziest, to go by recent results, has been to try to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South in Akron.

Mickelson has looked lost in the Rubber City since the late ’90s, but he’ll give it another go as 74 players, including 49 of the top 50 in the world, tee it up at the Bridgestone starting Thursday. The difference this year? He’s got to believe he can do anything now, coming off a win at the previously un-Phil-friendly British Open, which itself followed his Scottish Open victory.

You could delve into any number of storylines heading into the third WGC event of 2013, starting with Tiger Woods’s bid to win at Firestone South for the eighth time. According to fantasy-league guru Rob Bolton, Woods has won more money on that course, $9.36 million, than he has anywhere else. He has four wins already in 2013, most recently at the Players Championship in May.

Okay, that was two-and-a-half months ago, and you’re not into Tiger. Fine. Which first-timer will do the best at the Bridgestone? I like Webb Simpson by a hair over Hideki Matsuyama. (Simpson missed last year’s tournament to be with his wife for the birth of their second child.) Of the winners on the Texas swing, do you like Bae (Sang-Moon, Byron Nelson) or Boo (Weekley, Colonial)? What about Rory McIlroy? Will the lack of a 36-hole cut help him find his game?

The most interesting question, though, is where Mickelson goes from here, and whether his path will intersect with the top spot in the World Ranking. His W at the Open at Muirfield, of course, returned him to second in the world, behind only Woods. There are those who would argue Mickelson is already de facto No. 1, what with his victories at the British and Scottish Opens, and runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open and Fed Ex St. Jude Classic, but interpreting the rankings is a science, not an art, so the strict constructionists win the day. He’s No. 2.

Of the few gaps remaining on Mickelson’s resume, his failure to win a U.S. Open looms largest, especially now that it’s the only major he hasn’t won. Second largest, though, is his failure to seize No. 1, an omission that seems so odd for a player of his stature that if he goes his whole career without hitting the top spot, future dimple-heads might consider it a clerical error. Non-major-winners Luke Donald and Lee Westwood have reached No. 1, as have one-major wonders Fred Couples, David Duval, Martin Kaymer, Tom Lehman and Ian Woosnam. But Phil the Thrill, Hall of Famer, five-time major winner, has never hit the highest high.

Consider: Mickelson was so close to taking the No. 1 ranking in 2010 that I wrote (but never posted) a story that he’d already done it. “If Phil plays the way he’s supposed to this weekend,” an out-of-form No. 1 Woods said at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that summer, “then he’ll be No. 1.” Back then, Mickelson had won his third Masters but remained No. 2. He nearly won at Quail Hollow—still No. 2. And then, at Firestone South, Mickelson had shot 66-68 to trail only Retief Goosen going into the weekend. It was all but done. With Woods mired in swing changes—he would tie for 78th place—and just waiting to be passed, Mickelson needed only a solo fourth or better and No. 1 would be his. Alas, he seemed to want it too much, shooting 71-78 on the weekend to tie for 46th.

Fast-forward to today, and Mickelson isn’t exactly on the verge of No. 1. He has 8.56 points to Tiger’s 12.46, which means Mickelson is closer in points to 15th-ranked Ian Poulter than he is to Woods. What’s more, Tiger practically owns the WGC-Bridgestone, while Mickelson seems to have lost his feel for the place since winning in 1996 and finishing runner-up in each of the next three years.

But that doesn’t mean Mickelson won’t get to No. 1, and it may happen sooner than we think, if not at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill next week, then perhaps at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, where Mickelson held off Woods in a memorable duel in 2007. Then again, maybe Mickelson gets to No. 1 at the Tour Championship at East Lake. He’s won there, too.

We’ve come a long way since the end of 2007, when No. 1 Woods, coming off a seven-win season, had 24.36 World Ranking points for an enormous and insurmountable lead over No. 2 Mickelson (9.63). A lot has happened, not least of which has been Mickelson’s recent tendency to prevail in head-to-head meetings.

He’s 43, but he keeps surprising us. One of the great things about Muirfield was that it was yet another example of a guy who kept knocking on the door only to see it finally open. Still, I find myself thinking not of Mickelson’s persistence but his confidence. I wasn’t on the 13th hole to see his through-the-uprights, off-the-pine-straw 6-iron at the 2010 Masters, so the best shot I ever saw him hit was a hard-hooking 8-iron that set up a birdie and helped him win the 1990 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills. The shot was a precursor to Bubba’s wedge at the 2012 Masters, the difference being that few people actually saw Mickelson’s magic that day.

The lesson, though, was indelible: When his confidence runs high, Phil is capable of anything short of throwing a 90 mph fastball. Can he crack the code and steal No. 1 away from Tiger? Of course. If Mickelson can win the British, then anything’s possible. Assuming recent history holds—T43, T48, T46, T58 the last four years—he will do little more than get game-sharp at Firestone this week. After that he’s got Oak Hill, where he tied for 23rd place at the 2003 PGA, followed by the Phil-friendly FedEx playoffs.

The guess here is he’s No. 1 by late September.

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