SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC -- I'm on the flight home, Glasgow to Philadelphia on U.S. Air. The man a row in front of me is a Philadelphia lawyer and clubman of the old school, on the rolls at both Merion and Muirfield. He's in coach, by the way, and you have to admire his priorities. Seven-hour flights come and go, but the memories from front-row seats to two extraordinary national championships (membership has its privileges) lasts forever. I, too, was lucky enough to be near the action.
If Phil had won the first one, the U.S. Open, would he have won the second, the British? Probably not. His golf, his whole on-course persona, is too emotional to bring it again and again in golf's biggest events. Phil is not predictable. He does odd things to fight boredom and convention. We are slaves to routine, and he is not. And that, among other reasons, is why he is loved.
Tiger Woods is not a golfing robot, either. His many levels of genius, as a tactician and talent both, have been obscured by (first) his ungiving on-course demeanor and (second) the scandal that changed his life. None of this is fair. To bastardize his beloved phrase, he is who he is. What he is is a thoroughbred for the ages. In golf, he is without peer. In watching Tiger, we've been watching the '27 Yankees for more than two decades now, going back to his amateur days. But watching Phil is way more fun.
It has become popular to say that Tiger wants that 15th major (on his way to 19) too much and is thereby getting in his own way. I've been promoting that theory myself, not that I know anything. I'm just making a guess. But it makes sense.
You could surely say the same for Phil and the U.S. Open, that he wants it too much. Nothing else could explain six runner-up finishes. Six! You can understand Jack's six green jackets. Six silver medals, or whatever sad little token they give you for being a bridesmaid, is a whole different thing. At least Phil goes to the closing ceremonies. At Winged Foot in 2006, the two other No. 2s, Jim Furyk and Colin Montgomerie, were missing in action. Bad form.
Now, with his Open win at Muirfield, Phil's road to his first U.S. Open title, and a career Grand Slam, is actually more uphill, unless he can address the mental side of things. That's because the meaning of a U.S. Open win, whether it comes at Pinehurst next year or at any point anywhere, has only increased for him.
What I'm trying to say is that Tiger and Phil are essentially in the same place, head-wise. Tiger's quest for No. 15 (surely he'll get it, right?) is fraught with the same challenges that Phil will face trying to claim a U.S. Open title. As a numbers game, Tiger, of course, has better odds. He's 37 and plays in four majors a year, and any one of them will do the job. Phil's 43 and he and Butch Harmon and Jim (Bones) Mackay will be gearing up for every Father's Day from here through 2023, if need be.
One of my favorite quotes in the long history of golf quotes comes from Brad Faxon, reported by my colleague Gary Van Sickle years ago at Westchester. Brad was on the practice green, grooving that stroke that looked like Mark Price making free throws on an empty court. Somebody asked him what he was working on. "Not caring," Brad replied.
Now that is not to be taken literally. Woods surely won his 14 majors by caring hugely, most particularly when he needed 91 holes to win No. 14, the Torrey Pines U.S. Open of 2008 that most likely took more out of him than we'll ever know. But watching him closely during much of his career, you often had the feeling that Woods knew he didn't need extraordinary golf (by his standards) to win. He would play the golf he was capable of playing, and that would be enough. In his own way, he would understand what Brad was saying.
Phil's different. After licking his post-Merion wounds, did Mickelson become fixated on winning the British Open? I doubt it. I imagine he worked a lot on ball flight, on hitting three-woods off tight lies, on hitting trap shots from coarse sand. Every good golfer is a technician. But even then Phil might have asked himself if his game really lent itself to winning an Open. The answer, of course, is yes. Todd Hamilton won an Open. Ben Curtis. Ian Baker-Finch. All skillful golfers, but not remotely skillful like Mickelson is skillful.
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One of the differences between Tiger and Phil is that Tiger eats the clock of his press sessions talking about traj and yardages and green speeds. Phil talks about Amy, his kids, Bones, Butch, tax code, space exploration, the Baltimore Ravens, green speed and his favorite Callaway clubs. Both men are experts on course setups.
I enjoy listening to Tiger when his golf talk is genuinely, deeply techy. He doesn't go there that often. Maybe he doesn't think we'll understand it. (He's probably right.) Maybe he doesn't want to let out any state secrets. Lee Trevino has the same knack, to talk about the craft of the game in rich detail, but he does it every time up. It comes naturally. He enjoys it. Tiger's just a different person. A lot of people want him to be different from who he is. Come back in 20 years. We all change, over time.
One of my favorite off-course moments of the year came when Tiger was asked by a reporter to revisit Annika Sorenstam's visit to the men's tour a decade ago. Tiger, who doesn't play the Colonial stop, remembered the overnight rain before the Thursday round, the shapes of the holes, the reasons why he thought Annika had a chance to make the cut, what her performance did for her and for women's golf. Trevino will express his golf insights more expressively and expansively but not with more insight.
Trevino did what Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer did, what Phil and Ernie do, and what Tiger does not: He let you in. That's you, the golf fan who indirectly pays for the touring pros' many expensive toys. When Tiger's done trying to beat the world, I think we'll see a different man. The spitting (disgusting) and the cussing (so overblown as an issue) will become footnotes on a career that has been about world domination. That phrase will always make you think of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers flicks, and golf, pre-Tiger, has never had a practitioner who wanted and needed to beat the world. (Hogan wanted to beat his ball into submission.) So Woods has really been an outlier from the beginning, and you could see it in his 12-shot win at his first Masters as a pro. (Nicklaus said it never occurred to him to try to win by two TDs.) In other sports, that personality type has been on glorious display. Michael Phelps. Lance Armstrong. Bobby Knight. Barry Bonds. Jimmy Connors. Secretariat. Ali. Someday, Tiger will talk to us, but right now he's too occupied with other things.