Augusta, Ga. In a world without Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson would not challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, nor would he inspire comparisons to Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.
But how much greater would Phil’s legacy be had Earl Woods handed his toddling son a tennis racket, or had a grown-up Tiger turned toothless while wearing those blood-red Sunday shirts?
How many majors would Phil own today? Six? Seven? Eight? Nine?
Those would be the totals collected by Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gary Player.
Mickelson has three to his name, and he’s been stuck on three since he turned the 72nd hole at Winged Foot into the greatest misadventure since Jean Van de Velde went completely mad at the British.
No, that doesn’t make Mickelson another Craig Ehlo in Jordan’s time. Three rings are better than none, after all. Yet in a world ruled by Woods, even a future Hall of Famer can look smaller than the dime used to mark Tiger’s next eagle putt.
This is how Geoff Ogilvy, the beneficiary of Mickelson’s Winged Foot wipeout, talked about the way players look at Tiger as opposed to Phil:
“If you are fearful, you would be less fearful of Phil. . . . (Mickelson) can have periods where he’s unbelievable, but he can also have periods where he’s completely off the map.”
Ogilvy referenced the rare Tiger breakdown at The Masters — the back-to-back bogeys that followed his miracle chip-in at 16 and forced a playoff with Chris DiMarco — and how Woods recovered with the shots needed to win that playoff.
“Phil would do less than that, for sure,” Ogilvy said, “just because … he’s more human than Tiger.”
More human than Tiger?
Actually, defending Masters champ Trevor Immelman said, “Whether (Tiger’s) human or not is still up for debate.”
This much is clear: Mickelson is all too human. He’s his generation’s Palmer, loved for the fatal imperfections and absurd risks as much as he’s celebrated for his skill.
“I would love to be in the same group as him and walk down together on Sunday,” Mickelson said of Woods.
Mickelson was talking tougher than he’s talked in the past. He missed the cut in Houston and didn’t care a lick.
With Tiger’s ex-coach, Butch Harmon, assuming the role of cornerman, Mickelson had a hard time pulling his punches.
“I feel like right now I’m playing some of the best golf that I’ve ever played,” he said again. “I’m driving the ball better than I ever have. ... I feel very comfortable and confident in my game and in my equipment, and I feel like I’ll be able to in the next five years achieve levels of play that I haven’t achieved earlier in my career.”
Who says Mickelson has five years left in his prime? He’s fast approaching his 39th birthday, and Tiger already has a wary eye trained on 23-year-old Anthony Kim and the teen wonders, Danny Lee, Rory McIlroy and Ryo Ishikawa.
Though Woods maintained today’s fields are much deeper than they were when he arrived on tour — “The game is getting closer and closer together,” he said. He’s still leading this race by Secretariat lengths.