PEBBLE BEACH, California (AP) — The rivalry began simmering a couple of years ago, and while it takes place more in the record books than on fairways and greens, it might be the most compelling on the U.S. PGA Tour at the moment.
It doesn’t involve Tiger Woods, whose only rivals seem to be retired.
No, this is about the duel going on between Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, who are linked by victories and majors, and lately by losing. At stake is who will be regarded as the second-best player of his generation on the U.S. PGA Tour.
Mickelson lost in a sudden-death playoff in the FBR Open to J.B. Holmes, at the time No. 197 in the world. One week later, Singh looked a certainty to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am until a playoff loss to Steve Lowery, who checked in at No. 305 in the world.
“I let this one slip away,” Singh said.
That’s something they rarely do.
Mickelson is second among active players with 32 victories (plus two international events), one of them while he was still an amateur at Arizona State University. Singh is right behind with 31 victories (22 more around the world), the majority after he turned 40, and one more will put him atop the career list of foreign-born players.
Woods has 62 victories and is closer to Sam Snead’s record 82 than anyone behind him. Even so, Mickelson and Singh are so far ahead of everyone else that next among active players is 43-year-old Davis Love III with 19 wins.
Both have won three majors – Mickelson has two Masters and a U.S. PGA Championship, Singh one Masters and two U.S. PGAs. Lefty has 21 runner-up finishes on the U.S. tour, while the big Fijian has 24. Singh has won 13 times with Woods in the field, Mickelson has done that 11 times.
The biggest difference in their record is that Singh can look back on his career one day and say he was No. 1 in the world. He reached the top in 2004 when he won nine times and captured the money title for the second straight season, and was a runaway winner as U.S. PGA Tour player of the year.
Mickelson has never been No. 1, and the closest he came to winning a money title was in 1996, Woods’ last year as an amateur. He is only 37 and still has time, although his prospects look bleak when Woods is winning 30 percent of the time and probably won’t lose his grasp on No. 1 unless he decides to revamp his swing again.
That’s OK with Mickelson, who said as much last year at the Masters.
“If I have a great rest of my career and I go out and win 20 more tournaments, win seven more majors to get to 50 wins and 10 majors, which would be an awesome career, I still won’t get to where he’s at today,” Mickelson said. “So I don’t try to compare myself against him. What I’d like to do is try to win as many tournaments and as many majors that I can. And with him in the field, it just gives it more credibility, whatever it is I am able to accomplish.”
Purposely omitted from this discussion is Ernie Els, who doesn’t belong to any one tour.
Els also has three majors and reached No. 1 in the world on three occasions in the late 1990s. But he has only 15 victories on the U.S. PGA Tour, the product of crisscrossing the globe. No telling how many more times Els would have won in America had he stayed in one place.
With apologies to Ian Poulter, odds are it will be Mickelson who wins best supporting role on the U.S. tour.
What to make of the last two weeks?
Mickelson drew the wrong guy on the wrong course in losing at Phoenix. Holmes hits the ball like a gorilla, and the playoff took place on an 18th hole where Holmes could bash it anywhere and have a flip sand wedge to the green.
Mickelson then missed the cut in defense of his title at Pebble Beach, courtesy of an 11 on the 14th hole. It was the highest score on one hole in his U.S. PGA Tour career. Mickelson makes big mistakes occasionally, but not often does he make big numbers. That was an anomaly. His swing is fine, and he has few concerns about his progress this early in the year.
Singh raised more questions.
He retooled his swing in the latter part of 2007 and has reached the point where it feels great on the driving range, but trusting it inside the ropes becomes a chore. That much was clear on Sunday, when he twice made bogey from short range in the fairway, and barely got the ball out of the bunker on No. 18 in the playoff.
“I have to think and see why the shots went bad,” Singh said. “I’ll go back and do that, see what went wrong. Each time you get in a situation like this, you learn more from it. I’m going to learn more from not winning.”
Most believe Singh hit his peak in 2004. Since then, he has changed caddies and split with his longtime trainer. He has gone 23 starts without winning, his longest drought since 2001, the last year he failed to win on the U.S. PGA Tour.
As rivals, Mickelson and Singh are anything but friends.
There was that confrontation in the Champions locker room at the Masters in 2005 when Singh complained Mickelson’s metal spikes were too long. Twice last year when they played together in the U.S. PGA Tour playoffs, Singh wore dark sunglasses that had ear plugs attached to them, including a cloudy day at Westchester.
Ultimately, though, they will be judged by their victories in the race to be second-best to Woods. Mickelson is slightly ahead at the moment, but his best golf might still be ahead of him.