Tiger Woods's Rivals Will Be Back. Eventually.

Tiger Woods’s Rivals Will Be Back. Eventually.

Tiger Woods has made the first two months of 2006 an extension of his successful 2005, winning in Dubai, San Diego and, on Sunday, at the Ford Championship in Miami despite a sloppy, bogey-bogey finish.

But what's become of his competitors?

Phil Mickelson remains winless in 2006, as does Ernie Els (he lost a playoff to Woods in Dubai). Will they ever threaten Woods' supremacy again? Should we set the way-back machine to 2001, when it was Woods' world and everyone else just played for second homes?

Not so fast.

For one thing Woods is not quite the mistake-free player he once was, as evidenced by his surprising 8-iron into the water on the par-3 ninth on Saturday, resulting in a double bogey. What's more, the game's other marquee players have been deterred by distraction, injury and other impediments, only some of which have been self-imposed. Mickelson has been tinkering with a 47-inch driver.

"I put it in play one round at the Match Play against Charles Howell and it about cost me the match," he told me after shooting an opening-round 65 at Doral, one off Tiger's pace. "I didn't find the fairway, but I picked up some nice yardage with it, so I wouldn't rule it out. We just have to do a little tinkering. It's a different swing. I don't know if I want to use a different swing."

Winning the Masters and PGA with a controlled fade off the tee would convince some players that discretion is the better part of distance, but the siren song of the long ball is hard to ignore. Even Tiger is not immune, and with the success of J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson and Camilo Villegas—who tied David Toms for second place at Doral, one back of Tiger-—the 350-yard drive will figure more prominently than ever on Tour in the next 10 years.

In any case, Mickelson came into the Ford Championship pulled in a million different directions thanks to his Ford sponsorship, plus one more: As he waited for the green flag to drop on the '06 tourney his wife, Amy, was laid out at home, so sick as to require round-the-clock medical attention at the couple's San Diego home. Mickelson was worried.

On Wednesday he was visibly agitated by the photo-ops and interview requests he usually handles with aplomb, and had to be persuaded by Tour officials not to bail on his scheduled press conference (Woods was still at the dais). Ducking behind a row of potted plants to get on his cell phone for an update on Amy's health, Mickelson was sufficiently calmed to go on with the show, but it was a flat, un-Phil like, 10-minute Q&A that perplexed writers.

Amy's condition improved as the week went on, and Mickelson's sunny disposition returned along with his putting stroke. After he completed his opening round 65, he explained that he hadn't so much sprinted out of the gate, as one writer suggested, but had, "kind of meandered down the fairways." Alas, he meandered a bit too much. A lackluster 72-73 on the weekend left him tied for 12th. Els spun his wheels, shooting an opening 72, but at least he has wheels. He is still recuperating from ruptured ligaments in his left knee, an injury suffered while he was tubing behind a speedboat on a Mediterranean sailing holiday last July, wiping out the rest of his lackluster 2005.

"I still don't think my doctors told me exactly how bad it was," Els said recently. "But they told my wife."

Els was traveling with his trainer, Wentworth-based Josh Salzmann, at Doral. Salzmann, who has worked with such luminaries as Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet, says such injuries can require up to 18 months for full recuperation. Part of it is mental: Els has to feel the confidence, has to know that the knee is going to hold through a full, aggressive swing. He's not there yet.

Still, like Mickelson's, some of Els' distractions have been of his own doing. After rallying to make the cut at the Nissan Open in Los Angeles three weeks ago, he got on his jet and flew to Honolulu for a site visit at a golf course he's designing. He planned to turn around and jet back to the mainland, for the Match Play, less than 24 hours after landing, completing the longest commute in the gridlocked history of L.A.-to-San Diego. It's no wonder he lost to Bernhard Langer in the first round.

Els was in the Doral weight room shortly after his 72 on Thursday, a terrible start that would put him out of reach of Woods despite rallying with a 65 on Friday and a pair of 69s on the weekend that left him tied for seventh. He was riding the stationary bike and doing push-ups with Salzmann's supervision, and is approaching his comeback with evident dedication. He is in the middle of a Florida swing in which he'll be away from his two children for the longest time ever.

"I'm not going to see them for four weeks, so it's tough," Els told me during an interview for an upcoming issue of GOLF MAGAZINE. "Me and my wife—we keep on saying we've got to get that little camera on the computer. We still haven't done it. I'll just speak to them over the phone. I'll talk to them twice a day. That's the hardest part of what I'm doing."

Sacrifice and hard work, minus the mishaps and odd experimentation and bad luck, will bridge the gap. When it comes to the tournaments that count, starting with the Masters next month, Els and Mickelson will give Tiger more trouble than they did at Doral. Way more.

Cameron Morfit is a senior writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. Read his weekly column every Monday at GOLFONLINE.

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