Expect a blizzard of Phil-vs.-Tiger hype as Masters approaches

Expect a blizzard of Phil-vs.-Tiger hype as Masters approaches

The Northern Trust Open was Mickelson's 33rd victory, and his 16th on the West Coast.
Robert Beck/SI

Yes, there is truth in advertising, but usually only by accident. That’s why one of the great marketing slogans of the last decade was the one in the TV commercials that featured Phil Mickelson playing goalkeeper or guitar or something else — “What will Phil do next?”

It became a sports page cliche to be avoided, but in 2008, it’s still The Big Question. You never know the answer because Mickelson is the best thrill ride in golf. He is the game’s Human Bungee Jump. Sometimes he’s the fastest car on the track, sometimes he’s the biggest wreck. Either way, don’t take your eyes off him — you’ll miss something spectacular.

Mickelson reminded us on Sunday that he’s the best player of his generation of mortals (that last word excludes You Know Who, of course, who’s in a universe of his own) when he won the Northern Trust Open. (The Los Angeles Open to you old-schoolers.) It was his 33rd PGA Tour victory, 16 of which have come on the West Coast. Of course, he wasn’t nearly as responsible for beating Jeff Quinney in the final round as Quinney, who melted under the pressure with four bogeys in the last six holes. Still, Mickelson’s first victory at Riviera Country Club should not be dismissed. Or, as the absent Tiger Woods would say (and has many times), “A W is a W.”

Actually, what’s next for Phil is easy to predict — a blizzard of hype. The run-up to the Masters, scarily only two months off, will be reminiscent of 2006, when the world’s media expected (or should I say demanded?) a scathing shootout between Tiger, No. 1, and Lefty, No. 2. It didn’t happen. Look for the nation’s media hacks to dust off their “Duel Among the Azaleas” headlines now. A startling number of pundits have already jumped on the Tiger’s-going-to-win-the-Grand-Slam-this-year bandwagon, clearly hoping to boast later that, yes, they called it.

Pair that with Phil’s reformation. He’s been refining his swing with the help of Butch Harmon for almost a year. He might have made 2007 a banner year if he hadn’t injured his wrist by over-practicing from the rough at Oakmont before the U.S. Open. The wrist wiped out most of his summer, although he bounced back to win a head-to-head bout with Tiger in Boston over Labor Day weekend, perhaps the most electrifying Sunday of the year. Mickelson also went the extra mile over the winter. He worked out, got himself fitter and lost the gut he used to dismiss as “subcutaneous fat.”

You do the math. Tiger is supposedly poised to win the Grand Slam. He’s at the peak of his game and has already won in his first two appearances, at Torrey Pines and in Dubai. Phil was driven to work on his game and got a win he coveted at Riviera. They’re on a collision course, the media is sure to proclaim. There is only a snowball’s chance in a Pizza Hut oven of them meeting this week in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship final — the word upset should be banned in reference to all 18-hole matches, while we’re on the subject — but whether they do or don’t, you can pencil in the Masters as a media-generated Clash of the Titans. It would be great if it happened, just once in our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, let’s remember how Phil got to Riviera. And by that, I don’t mean the fact that he commuted by plane. Just three weeks ago, before playing the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, he was reportedly recovering from inhaling smoke from the fires that ravaged Southern California in October.

He tied for sixth at Torrey Pines, though at six under he was 13 shots behind the winner, Woods, who won in an eight-shot rout. He was still a little off his game for the FBR Open in his former adopted hometown of Scottsdale, but he nearly won, losing in a playoff to J.B. Holmes. On the playoff hole, Phil laid up with a 3-wood off the tee, and Holmes bombed it over a lake and a bunker and just short of the green. It was the kind of brash, go-for-broke shot that Mickelson loves. It had to kill him that he looked like he was playing old-man golf in comparison to Holmes. You can give him credit, though, for playing smart at age 37. Or you can assume that his confidence in his erratic driving had dropped below zero by the end of the day. Either way, it was another fascinating Phil moment. Holmes won, Phil tuned up.

Then came Pebble Beach. Mickelson was four over par after his first 10 holes before going five under on a four-hole stretch. By Saturday, he was lingering on the edge of contention when he hit two straight hybrid shots out of bounds right at Pebble’s par-5 14th hole, spun a wedge shot off the green and chunked a pitch en route to an 11 and a missed cut.

It seemed like another Phil folly, like the shot through the trees on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006 or the “nut shot” that Johnny Miller called at Oakland Hills during the 2004 Ryder Cup or the five-putt on the 10th green at the 2002 Players Championship. But it wasn’t. The fairway slopes sharply left at the 14th, so players favor the right side. It doesn’t take much of a miss to reach the O.B. stakes. Had he been trying to make a check or get a top-10 finish to pad his bank account, he could’ve chipped out, but he was trying to win the tournament. Once he bombed one out of bounds, he had to go for it again to try to salvage a bogey. It was a reasonable gamble that went very wrong. Still, don’t hold your breath waiting to see Woods make an 11.

This victory at the Riviera is significant for two reasons. First, Phil has 33 wins and counting, and he’s doing it in the Tiger Era. It’s amazing how many legends of golf never got to 30 PGA Tour victories. Not Johnny Miller, not Lee Trevino, not Raymond Floyd, not Gary Player. It’s even more amazing how many Hall of Famers never sniffed 20. Not Ben Crenshaw, not Hubert Green, not Curtis Strange, not Tom Kite, not Julius Boros. Phil’s record is remarkable, but it doesn’t get much attention compared to Tiger’s 62.

Second, Phil finally owns a title and a little piece of history that Tiger doesn’t. But don’t assume the Northern Trust triumph is confirmation of a pending Tiger vs. Phil showdown at Augusta. Just take it for what it is, a breakthrough that gives Mickelson a connection to Ben Hogan, who made such a habit of winning at Riviera that it became known as Hogan’s Alley.

It the middle of You Know Who’s era, that’s something.