Rivalry Renewed

Rivalry Renewed

Mickelson had six birdies in his final round.
Charles Krupa/AP

NORTON, Mass. — Phil Mickelson watched a no-hitter Saturday night at Fenway Park, a magical show of baseball history.

On Monday, he competed in a nearly perfect game at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, a magical show of potential golf history. The FedEx Cup playoffs have some flaws, but a scintillating final-round duel between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson cures just about anything.

Mickelson shot a five-under-par 66 to finish at 16 under and knock the king of golf off his perch, at least temporarily. He finished two shots ahead of Woods, Brett Wetterich and Arron Oberholser to take the lead in the FedEx Cup points race for the $10 million deferred annuity. Last week’s winner, Steve Stricker, fell to second in the FedEx standings, and Woods is third.

It’s been a long time since Boston witnessed a tee party like this. With apologies to Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington and every other winner this year, Labor Day at the Deutsche Bank Championship blew them all away. This was golf’s finest hour in 2007.

We’ve waited years for a Tiger vs. Phil rivalry to really blossom, or at least take center stage. Monday, those dreams came true. As they used to say in the beer commercials, it doesn’t get any better than this.

If this FedEx Cup gimmick eventually gains traction, and after this day it seems like it probably will, golf historians will point to this round. It wasn’t quite a Duel in the Sun like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had at Turnberry in 1977, but it’ll do. Then again, if the FedEx Cup dies on the vine, historians may point to this day, too.

At the award ceremony on the 18th green, Mickelson hinted that he may not play the third leg of the FedEx Cup series this week at Cog Hill. He didn’t blame fatigue, like Woods did before he skipped The Barclays, but he mentioned requests he’d made that were not fullfilled by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. He did not elaborate.

Later, Mickelson said he wanted to be home when his daughters started school next week. He said he hadn’t made a decision on whether to play the BMW Championship but that he was going to Chicago to fulfill a corporate outing Tuesday. Mickelson added that he would play the Tour Championship in Atlanta even if he skipped the BMW.

His comments cast a cloud over an otherwise remarkable day in the FedEx Cup playoffs, a day when Mickelson and Woods may have officially established a real rivalry. Woods made a charge with birdies on three of the last five holes, but Mickelson answered, making birdies on two of the last three to hold him off.

One precise moment may have made the difference. Woods had just holed a monster 40-foot birdie putt at the 14th hole to cut Mickelson’s lead to two shots. At the 16th, a par-3 guarded by a pond, Woods stuck his 8-iron shot to 10 feet and earned a roar that might have awakened even Paul Revere. Then Mickelson stepped up and carved his 8-iron to six feet, topping Woods. The next roar was probably heard at FedEx headquarters in Memphis.

A shot like that could be a career-turner, but Mickelson’s career is already firmly established. It was his 32nd career victory, and his first since winning the Players in May. “To step up on 16 and knock it inside of him felt terrific,” Mickelson said. “The next step is to try to go head-to-head in a major. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to do that next year.”

The secret to a successful tournament is clearly to have Woods and Mickelson playing together, and in contention. Monday, they were paired in the next-to-last group behind Brett Wetterich and Arron Oberholser. The final duo served as an afterthought to the Woods-Mickelson showdown, but give them credit. In the end, Wetterich and Oberholser tied for second with Woods at 14 under par. Oberholser was the last man with a chance to catch Mickelson, but his chip for eagle on No. 18 came up short.

Mickelson was in top form from the start, making birdies on five of the first 10 holes and opening a commanding three-shot lead going to the back nine. But you know Phil. He’s the guy who played eight great holes Friday before making a boneheaded triple bogey with an assortment of bad swings and worse decisions.

On Monday, he outplayed everyone, but just when the fans were preparing for a blowout, Mickelson hit a chunky 6-iron shot that came up short at the 12th hole and rolled into a hazard. It was a bad swing and a bad play and led to a double bogey. Woods missed his 14-foot birdie putt, but still, the game was back on.

“I did not putt well the majority of the week,” said Woods, who trailed by five on the 12th tee. “Phil got off to a great start; we all had to go get Phil. When Phil made a mistake at 12, I felt if I could have made that putt, I could get a big chunk back. I missed three pretty makable putts at 11, 12 and 13.”

There was more suspense at the reachable par-5 18th. Woods played a perfect tee shot, leaving him a 4-iron shot to a green fronted by a hazard. Mickelson mis-hit his 3-wood off the tee and had 270 yards to the green. Would he go for it or lay up? Are you kidding? He’s Phil Mickelson. He hammered a 3-wood shot just left of the green, into a gnarly lie in a grass bunker. Woods dropped his iron shot onto the middle of the green and had a slick 30-foot downhill putt for eagle.

Mickelson loves being on the stage with a 60-degree wedge in his hands. It’s his most comfortable club. He pitched a nice shot that rolled down to within four feet. Woods, two behind, had to hole his eagle putt to have any chance. He left it just short and angrily muttered to himself after he tapped it in. When Phil rolled in the four-footer for birdie, he all but iced the win, and the vocal fans cheered wildly.

“All year, we’ve been talking about how the excitement level has been kind of dead,” Woods said. “It’s nice to see some atmosphere out there. It was fun for both of us, it was fun for the gallery and it was probably great for the tournament.”

This week goes down in Mickelson’s scrapbook as one of his all-time best. It began with a trip to Kennebunkport, Me., and golf with the former President Bush, Justin Leonard and Davis Love. Then came the pilgrimage to Fenway and the no-hitter by Red Sox rookie Clay Buchholz, who had been promoted from the minor leagues just hours earlier. It ended with Phil staring down Tiger Woods himself.

“I had a lot of fun this whole week,” Mickelson said. “It was a very special, memorable week. I’m just so excited with the way it finished.”

So was his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, who opted not to attend the Red Sox game with the Mickelson clan. Monday, as TV cameras swarmed around Mickelson after he exited the scoring cabin, Mackay carried Mickelson’s golf bag over one shoulder and the flag from the 18th green in his hand — the winning caddie’s traditional souvenir. A writer asked Mackay if this finish made up for missing the no-hitter.

“It does,” he said, unable to suppress a huge grin. “I’ll take it.”

So, too, will golf fans everywhere.