Phil and Tiger have something new in common, but they also remain more different than ever
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.
(RELATED: Mickelson's career highs and lows through the years)
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.
In the meantime, those of us who watch and care spin our little theories about this and that, like why he hasn't won a major in more than five years. Steve Williams said the other day that Tiger's play is simply not as aggressive as it once was. This was a most interesting comment because Tiger, in his 2000-02 prime, was both profoundly aggressive and conservative. He played exactly the shot that the situation called for. Now, on weekends at the majors, he errs on the side of caution. That's how it seems to Williams.
Tiger's greatness as a professional is rooted in his extraordinary amateur career, during which he won three consecutive national junior titles followed by three consecutive U.S. Amateurs. Over those six years, he won 36 consecutive matches. (Those events are loser-goes-home. That will toughen you up, just as playing tournament golf as a broke teenager toughened up Seve, Bernhard, Vijay, Faldo, Carlos Franco and many others.) Nike got the deal of a lifetime when it signed him coming out of Stanford, whatever the actual number was. (Once, when I was fishing for a contract number from Mark Steinberg, he said, "I know and I know who knows and the chance anybody else knowing is zero." Not verbatim, but close.) Tiger at 20 was a seasoned pro, ready to take on all comers.
To a degree, Woods took that match-play attitude to the stroke-play life of the PGA Tour. Not so much on Thursdays and Fridays, when you're playing with two other people and, among other things, you're guarding against the big mistake that might cost you a chance to play on the weekend. But on Saturdays and Sundays, he sure did.
Everybody who follows golf closely knows that Woods has won all 14 of his majors after having at least a piece of the lead through 54 holes. To get in that last group, you have to play your best golf on Saturday, when the course is harder than it was in the opening two rounds. The guy Woods played with on those 14 Saturdays was also playing well, so Tiger's first order of business was to beat that guy. And Tiger did, again and again.
And this is how he did it. He got the honor. He walked up to tee boxes like he owned them and made the other guy watch him. He was parading around a boxing ring, and it was majestic. He tugged on his glove and flexed his muscles. He ripped tee shots, stiffed irons, ignored the frothing crowds, got in a zone, left greens (sometimes) before the other guy had putted out. He was better than you to start with, and now you're looking at this show for 18 holes? Please. By the end of Saturday, Tiger had moved north and the other guy had moved south. One less guy for Tiger to worry about. On Sunday, he did it all over again. And, of course, the players talked. You know how you're preconditioned to find Larry David funny? The players were preconditioned to be defeated by Tiger Woods.
That's not happening now, not on weekends at the majors. That hasn't been happening since Y.E. Yang rallied on Sunday to beat Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship, since the scandal, since various injuries, a swing change, a coaching change, an agency change.
On Saturday at Muirfield, Lee Westwood beat him. On Sunday, Adam Scott did. Tiger lost two days in a row! How often does that happen? If you want to win, for starters you have to beat the guy you're playing with. And doing exactly that has been a big part of Tiger's golfing DNA. You never hear him say at the end of a round, "That was a good pairing for me." He doesn't need a playing partner that puts him in a comfort zone. His comfort zone is, or was, the other player's discomfort.
Phil is different that way. It certainly helped him win in 2006 at Augusta when he played with the mellow Fred Couples on Sunday. Playing in the Muirfield finale with Francisco Molinari of Italy, the same. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more agreeable person than Frankie M. He's respectful, ready to play, doesn't moan or play head games. He's not long. He's not intimidating.
Can Phil win a U.S. Open and join the elite club of golfers who have won all four modern majors? (Tiger, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are the only players to have done it. Still, I'm putting only three people on my Mt. Rushmore of golf: Old Tom, Bob Jones, Big Jack. There's room for a fourth.) Of course Phil can win a U.S. Open. He can win a British Open, right? He's about the youngest 43-year-old with a wife and three kids you'll ever see. (Looking at him gives me hair envy.) His longevity is astounding, and he brings to mind Julius Boros, Sam Snead and Billy Casper, all big men with long swings and long careers. Boros and Casper both won the U.S. Open. Snead did not, but there are people (Mac O'Grady comes to mind) who will tell you he was the best of them all. There's more than one way to measure greatness in this game. The ultimate thing, of course, in golf and in life, is how you judge yourself.
Phil was saying the other day that you have to win all four majors to be considered truly great. Fair enough, even though Snead and Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson did not. Seve, either. All true greats in my book. They lifted the game, made our game better. They took, and they gave. Gene Sarazen! I have to tell you, knowing Gene Sarazen's hot-pistol daughter is a little joy for me. Gene Sarazen would go out for dinner and order ice cream for dessert, a single scoop, "the size of a golf ball." He charmed the old-gal waitresses and everybody else he met.
Phil has some of that. He, in his own way, is already on the all-time great list, as a competitor and as a figure in the game. He's not coming off that list no matter what he does in these next 10 U.S. Opens. Wouldn't you agree? Maybe if he could think about it like that, he could find a way to care less and join Gene and the gang. In any event, it's all good.