ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The field is set for the PGA Championship here at mighty Oak Hill. As far as I can tell, there are only two players in it.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Get ready for all Tiger and Phil all the time this week. When I looked up at the big-screen TV in the PGA pressroom this morning, Golf Channel was showing Tiger Woods hitting balls on the range. In the early afternoon, I saw extended coverage of Phil signing autographs for fans. Even more scintillating. Is there anybody else out there? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller…?
That’s where we are right now, a harmonic convergence of Tiger and Phil. And most of the media, including all of us print and digital hacks, will be guilty of watching through the same narrow microscope.
That’s right, it’s “PhilGer” time at Oak Hill. That’s my attempt at a catchy Hollywood couples nickname like Bennifer for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. “WoodyMick” has a chance. I think my winner is “Eldrickelson.” You decide.
Anyway, Phil just won the British Open with a stirring final round and Tiger just won the Bridgestone Invitational by seven shots even though he took his foot off the accelerator on the weekend. Presumably, they’re both playing their best golf right now, just in time for the year’s final major championship. The big challenge will be how much TV coverage anybody but Phil and Tiger get this week. If the Dynamic Duo contend, they’ll soak up most of the spotlight. You’ve got to give the public what it wants. So if it seems as if there are only two players in the PGA this week, it’s not your imagination.
But could we really get lucky enough to watch a Tiger-Phil duel in a major? They’ve never really gone head-to-head in the same pairing on Sunday in a major championship. They’ve never had that definitive Nicklaus-Watson, Nicklaus-Trevino, Palmer-Casper moment that we all crave.
Could this be the week? The odds say no. The odds also said Mickelson would never win a British Open. It is no secret that Tiger is on top of his game, at least with everything but the driver. He didn’t have to hit that club that often at Firestone, a course that is somewhat similar to Oak Hill, and he won’t be pulling it out of the bag all that much this week, either. Tiger said he plans to use driver two to five times per round this week, depending on the conditions. So Oak Hill should be playing to his strengths — iron play, shotmaking and putting.
“I feel good, I had a great week last week,” Tiger said. “I like it. I liked it when I played here in ’03. It’s a fantastic golf course. It’s tough. You have to play well. This is one of those courses where you’ve got to bring it, ball-striking wise.”
Errant driver or not, who’s one of the best ball-strikers on tour and who’s the best shotmaker on tour (by a mile, I might add)? Correct answer: Tiger. He’s on a roll and he took it easy Monday and Tuesday, mostly just doing some chipping and putting and his usual weight work.
One other incentive, not that he needs one, is that this is the year’s last major. It’s been more than five years since his last major win, the 2008 U.S. Open. Tiger is tired of hearing about that drought. He’s tired of having his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his record of 18 major championships stalled. He’s tired of the stories about how he hasn’t been able to get it done on the weekends at major championships the last two years, and that’s the kind of talk that he appears to ignore but you know that, deep down, it irritates the heck out of him.
In past years, Tiger has indicated that if he doesn’t win a major, he doesn’t consider it a truly great year. He’s not backtracking on that, not really, but he does like to put the best spin on whatever position he’s in. This year that’s five wins, no majors.
“Winning one major automatically means you had a great year,” he said. “Even if you miss the cut in every other tournament, you win one major, you’re part of history. This year for me, it’s been a great year, winning five times. You look at the quality of tournament’s I’ve won — a Players and two World Golf Championships, that’s pretty good. We have four more big events after this. A lot of things can happen but I’m focused on this week and trying to win this one.”
Who would you vote Player of the Year right this minute? Tiger with his five wins and no majors or Phil with two wins, one of them the British Open? You know which of those Tiger would rather have. He’d take Phil’s British Open and run. If Tiger snags this PGA, Player of the Year is open and shut. If someone other than WoodyMick wins, the FedEx Cup series may determine Player of the Year.
Phil’s British Open win came the week after he won the Scottish Open. Last week, Mickelson finished 21st in a field of 73 players at Firestone. That would be more of a cause for concern if that was a place where he typically played well, but he typically doesn’t. He’s never won there, although when defending champion Keegan Bradley offered to give him a few tips on how to win there last week, Phil reminded him, “Hey, I finished second there when you were nine years old.”
Like Tiger, Phil has an air of confidence about him now that’s stronger than usual, if that’s possible. Asked if he’s got a number for how many major titles he’d like to win in his career now that he’s got five, Phil joked, “Right now, it’s six.”
When the laughter subsided, he added that he’d obviously like to win a U.S. Open to complete his career Grand Slam, a more immediate goal than counting up his major total. Left unsaid was the part about, yeah, he’s never going to catch Tiger and his 14 majors.
Inevitably, Phil was asked about Tiger’s resounding win in Akron. “Tiger winning is great. I can’t remember the last time somebody won the week before and then went on and won,” he said, He was referring to his own British Open experience a few weeks ago, a nice joke, and he drew laughter from a room full of media.
Life is good when you’re winning. Life is good when Tiger is winning.
“Having him play well and having him win like he’s won this year is great for golf,” Phil said about Tiger. “He’s playing solid and he played great last week…
“I love playing golf and I love competing. Whether it’s competing head-to-head with Tiger or anybody else on tour, I love that. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. That would ultimately be the goal: If I can play as well as I can at the same time Tiger is doing the same, I would love that opportunity.”
It would also be a great spectating opportunity for the rest of us.
Eldrickelson? May we be so lucky.
Meanwhile, you’ve got mail… straight from the Van Cynical Mailbag:
Gary, The last three times Tiger won going into the PGA he finished second, first and second. Do you see this trend continuing?—Douglas Schwimer via Twitter
It’s hard to pick against a guy who won by a touchdown even though he wasn’t really trying to make birdies on the weekend. Also, as Paul Azinger tweeted earlier, Oak Hill is not unlike Firestone with its tree-lined fairways, thick rough and smallish greens. Tiger’s got some inner confidence glow about him, as I mentioned in my gamer from Firestone. It would be shocking if he’s not in contention. And let’s face it, golf would suddenly get 10 times more interesting if Tiger gets major title No. 15 this week. He’s the guy to beat this week, just like the old days.
Gary, Sam Snead claimed he should've had credit for some more wins. How dubious is that claim?—Mark Farrell via Twitter
It’s not dubious at all. If you’re a player, you count every tournament you win as a victory. Especially in the years before there was anything like an official PGA Tour. Gary Player has something like 160 wins worldwide. But every win isn’t something that should count as an official PGA Tour win. Snead was credited with 84 tour wins for years. Then when the PGA Tour issued a history book with a mathematical ranking system in 1989, it revised his total downward to 81. Then in the ’90s, when the PGA Tour decided to count the British Open as official (double duh!), it bumped Snead to 82 wins. But that total is bogus. In our U.S. Open preview, Sal Johnson and I determined that Snead’s total should be 74, not 82. Snead got credit for winning a four-man event (like the Grand Slam of Golf, which Tiger won seven times and doesn’t count), a two-man partner event (those don’t count today) and half a dozen assorted 18- and 36-hole tournaments, which also wouldn’t be official today. Byron Nelson’s 11 wins in a row also included a two-man partner event that shouldn’t count and Ben Hogan should be credited with the streak for the most consecutive tournaments in the money with 177, not Nelson at one time and not Tiger now. The tour’s records are shamefully inconsistent and need correction.
Van Cynical, Shot clock in golf? Not like basketball. More like tournament billiards where you can ask for an allotted amount of extensions.—Capbozo via Twitter
Welcome to the party late, Cap. I’ve advocated a shot clock for several years as the only way to curb slow play in professional golf. I like your provision for extensions concept. Plus, imagine the excitement on a key shot late in a tournament and the announcer intoning, “The clock is running down, I don’t know if Mickelson will get this off in time…” It would give golf a shot-at-the-buzzer element. And it would provide a black-and-white way to enforce pace of play. I could go on but my allotted 45 seconds are almost—BZZZZZZZZTTTT!!!
Vans, Beta-blocker testing for PGA Tour pros? Discuss. If you can ban an anchored putter, why not the funny pills?—Arnold Layne via Twitter
I can assure you, Arnie, that A-Rod has never used beta blockers when he plays golf and he will fight any suspension as unjust. Actually, no one knows if beta blockers in widespread use or used at all. This may become an issue at some point, though. To get golf into the Olympics, at some point pro golf is going to have to apply Olympic drug-testing standards, which are far more stringent than what is being tested for now. Even though golfers will be forewarned about this, you have to think some speeders are going to get caught. The anchored-putting ban was a complete waste of time. And if golf had actual performance enhancing drugs, we wouldn’t ban them, we’d all to go CVS and order a double batch.
Van Cynical, Does anyone care who wins the PGA except that player, his caddie, his family, his sponsors, his swing coach, his fitness coach and his sports psychologist?—Derek Lewis via Twitter
Duh, Derek. His agent, his vice agent, his press liaison and maybe his ex-wife, for starters. And if the winner is Tiger or Phil or Rory, especially if it’s Tiger, everyone cares. The Countdown to Jack will not only resume, it’ll bump up to DEFCON 3.
Vans, How many players in the field have a legit shot to win? I think less than 60, though Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel proved anyone can win.—Neil Monroe via Twitter
Based on the growing hype from this week, the number is more like two: Tiger and Phil. I think you’re in the right ballpark. Maybe it’s 50, but as Beem and Micheel showed, you don’t know exactly which 50. Everybody has to win their first (and possibly last) major sometime. It’s also determined by the course setup. When you have a disastrously bad setup like Oak Hill in 2003, when the rough was eight inches and bent over, it works as an equalizer. If you make a course so difficult and penal that birdies only happen by accident, you negate ability and keep the best players from separating themselves from the pack. On a truly demanding and fair track, it may be only 20 players who can win. In 2001, it was down to pretty much one guy for a while.
Vans, When fighting the flu, is it true that the best way to keep a fever down is by playing it off your back foot?—Capbozo via Twitter
I see you’re using your special one-time exemption to ask a second cynical question, Cap. Well played. I think the old saying goes, “Fade a fever, hook a cold.” So when you’ve got a fever, you should obviously open your stance and hold it off on your follow-through. I’m not doctor, however, although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Technically, it was a Radisson in downtown Rochester, but it appears to be about as good as a Holiday Inn Express.
Is coffee OK, Gary?—Morgan Cameron via Twitter
No. Coffee smells like tar and tastes worse. You couldn’t pay me to drink that swill. I don’t even want it near me. As for my previous tweet where I said that anything’s possible if you’ve got a banana and a Mountain Dew in the morning, I was sending mixed signals. The real elixir of the gods is Squirt. Or, in lieu of that, Diet Squirt. The PGA pressroom dining area has Pepsi products this week, however. So I have to adjust. I’m just going to take it one drink at a time and try to play within myself.