Mickelson embraces rivalry with Woods, closes on No. 1 ranking

Mickelson embraces rivalry with Woods, closes on No. 1 ranking

Phil Mickelson could rise to No. 1 in the world this week for the first time in his career.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

You’re going to hear a lot about the No. 1 world ranking this week because Phil Mickelson has a chance to surpass Tiger Woods as the top-ranked player in the Official World Golf Rankings if he wins the Players Championship and Woods finishes outside the Top 5.

That’s news, not just because Woods has held the top spot for the last 258 weeks, or since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was released. It’s a big deal because Mickelson — unlike Vijay Singh and Ernie Els — has never held the top spot. Give Mickelson credit for acknowledging that.

“It’s every player’s goal and intent to strive to be recognized as the No. 1 player in the world relative to the rankings,” Mickelson said at TPC Sawgrass on Tuesday. “It’s certainly something that I have been striving for but have not achieved yet. And so it would mean a lot to me.”

But what the Official World Golf Rankings won’t settle — what it can’t settle — is who’s the best player in the world right now. Woods has been the heavyweight champ of the game for more than 10 years, but he hasn’t always been the No. 1-ranked player.

“I’ve had it happen before, Double-D (David Duval) and Vijay,” Woods said Tuesday of losing the top spot in the rankings. “The whole idea to be No. 1 and continue being No. 1, you have to win golf tournaments. And I haven’t done that in a while.”

Heck, even major-less Sergio Garcia threatened to overtake Woods as No. 1 in 2008. With all the time he’s missed, first with his knee surgery and then with his worldwide sex scandals, it’s remarkable that Woods continues to hold the No. 1 ranking. If Mickelson passes Woods, it won’t mean that Woods isn’t the best player in the game, but it will mean that the title is up for grabs at the 2010 U.S. Open next month.

The funny thing is that for all the talk of a Woods-Mickelson rivalry, they haven’t played each other much when it really mattered on Sunday. Woods’ father, Earl, once said that when Woods and Mickelson face each other, someone else wins the tournament.

We have to rely on their computer-ranking rivalry this week because these guys never play their best golf at the same time. The Players looks to be more of the usual with Mickelson’s star ascending, and Woods as far down as he’s ever been.

“If you look at our careers, it’s gone in streaks where I’ll get him, he’ll get me and it kind of goes in little spurts,” Woods said.

We’re in a down cycle for scandal-scarred Woods, who said his game is better this week because “it couldn’t get worse.” Meanwhile, Mickelson looks to be playing some of the best golf of his life. His win at the Masters even impressed one of the toughest critics out there: Woods.

“I was just blown away that he can hit 8-iron from 205 yards on 15,” Woods said of Mickelson’s Sunday round at Augusta. “Westwood was telling me he had 208 and he hit 6-iron and Phil had 205 and hit 8-iron. I’ve never seen anyone hit 8-iron 205. Good shot (laughs).”

Mickelson knows he can’t ever equal Woods’s resume (fourteen majors at age 34?!), but he sounds like he’s ready to be the Real World No. 1, not just the Official World Golf Rankings No. 1. Mickelson said Tuesday that he doesn’t just want to play against Woods, he actually needs to face Woods to play his best golf.

“As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate all that he has done for the game of golf and me in particular,” Mickelson said. “I’ve also found that I’ve needed him to help me get my best golf out, and he has pushed me to work harder and he has pushed me to become a better player.

“I also feel that when he and I would play earlier, I didn’t perform to the best of my abilities. And now I believe that when I’m paired with him or compete against him or with him, he gets my best golf out of me, or I find a way to play my best golf. I don’t know how you want to phrase it, but I find that I need him for me to play my best.”

Listen to Mickelson talk and you can get caught up in the dream of a Mickelson-Woods showdown at Pebble Beach. Sports is starved for a great rivalry. The bloom is off the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, whose games can take longer than a round of golf with Ben Crane. In the NFL, parity and realignment have squeezed the life out of once potent rivalries. North Carolina-Duke? The Tar Heels couldn’t make the tournament. Michigan-Ohio State? The Wolverines couldn’t qualify for a bowl game. If Woods and Mickelson can go head-to-head at majors over the next few years, we’re looking at a potential Magic-Bird, Federer-Nadal, and maybe even Palmer-Nicklaus level rivalry. It’s a beautiful dream.

But keep in mind, the next time they play each other in the final group of a major will be the first time.

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