The world’s two best golfers stare out at me from two quite different places. Over here, a tabloid newspaper carries an action shot of Tiger Woods splashed next to a photo of — if I’m not mistaken — Bimbo No. 4, though it could be Bimbo No. 2, unless it’s Bimbo No. 7. And over here, from a full-page ad in the New Yorker, Phil Mickelson gazes squarely into the camera with a CEO’s self-assuredness, arms folded, hair coiffed, left sleeve casually rolled up to display a Rolex. “The People’s Champion” reads the ad copy.
Mickelson is indeed that, though it is an encomium I never quite understood. The fact that Lunch Bucket Larry related to Lefty, a multi-millionaire who seemed a little whiny, a little smug and a lot prone to collapse whenever a Tiger prowled nearby, (and even when he didn’t), was, as far as I was concerned, one of the mysteries of sport.
What is easy to understand, though, is that — with the exception of the tabloids, the artificially-enhanced, show-me-the-money mistresses and the phalanx of attorneys — no one stands to gain more from Tiger’s fall than Lefty, his eternal foil. Indeed, despite Woods’s constancy (we’re talking about on the course) and Mickelson’s roller-coaster inconsistency over the years, they remain 1 and 1-A, the one rivalry that has outlasted Woods v. Els, Woods v. Garcia, Woods v. Harrington and Mickelson v. his own foolish shot selection. Woods v. Mickelson truly mattered, not just because of their primacy as players but also because they were, like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird once were, the archetypes of record. Woods the steely-eyed master of his domain, Mickelson the gambling, smiling, club-twirling man of the people.
As a fan, you were to some extent either a Phil Guy or a Tiger Guy. If you were the former, you liked that Lefty signed more autographs, made more eye contact and was willing to try more high-risk shots than Tiger. In other words, you liked that a human heart apparently beat under that famously un-sculpted chest. But Phil Guys had to accept the limits of their man. Mickelson has had his moments against Tiger — two of them came last season when he overtook Woods for victories at the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, a World Golf Championship event — but you knew which one had the eternal edge, which one was Mozart and which was Salieri.
Tiger never let anyone forget it either. Their feelings toward each other have warmed over the years; witness their bonding at the President’s Cup. (Witness, too, that they were not paired together.) But the most enduring snapshot of their relationship remains the dagger look that Eldrick flashed Lefty at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Michigan. Mickelson had just deposited his drive at the 18th hole somewhere near the Canadian border, thereby ensuring that their afternoon alternate-shot pairing would be as disastrous as their morning four-ball pairing had been. I knew this guy would choke, Woods’s look seemed to say.
To the extent that I was either, I was a Tiger Guy, solely out of respect for his talent because I don’t know the man. My resistance to Mickelson was not based on outside observation, though. Several years ago I did a story on him for Sports Illustrated and spent some time with him in Muirfield, Scotland, at the British Open. I understood the guy’s-guy part of him. We tossed around a baseball (he pitched, I caught), did card tricks (they were his), rode around at high speed in his rented sports car (he drove), and thankfully we never reached the point where he took me for everything I was worth in high-stakes NFL bets. But what prevailed, as far as I was concerned, was the I’m-smarter-than-you part of Mickelson’s personality, the self-satisfied smugness. This was before he had won a major, too, and his air of bravado rang hollow.
My feelings have evolved over the years, though. Say what you want about him, but Lefty has remained Lefty. He has won majors (three of them), just like he said he would. He might have a plastic smile crazy-glued on his face, but, dammit, he signs every post-round autograph and meets every post-round gaze, just like he said he would. He loves his wife and children and makes sacrifices to his golf game to spend time with them, just like he said he would. Contrast that with what Woods said about himself. Make that, with what Woods seemed to be saying about himself.
Clearly, we have reached a new intersection in golf’s most fascinating pas de deux. The contrast in their respective images stands in clear relief, the one a serial womanizer starring in a soap-opera domestic tragedy, the other a dedicated family man helping his wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, fight brave battles against cancer.
Even before all the Tiger Tales came to light, one of the story lines going into the 2010 season was whether this was the year that Lefty could challenge him for the top spot. Maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t, but, to a degree, Mickelson doesn’t have to reach No. 1 — there were a lot of Phil Guys even when he was looking up at Woods. We’re five years removed from their disastrous Ryder Cup in Michigan, and look whose lie is unplayable now.