Tiger-Phil would be must-see tee glee
Banks are tanking and auto sales are in the dumper. But the economy of golf is about to heat up.
Think Tiger and Phil, only-first-names-needed superstars.
Think two cowboys, staring at each other down a dusty main street in Dodge City, spurs on their boots, guns in their holsters, hands at the ready.
Think cash registers ka-chinging with ticket sales and rocketing TV ratings.
As recently as Wednesday, golf was just another business looking to redo a loan until things got better. Tiger Woods, its main meal ticket, had been missing in action for eight months. Phil Mickelson, its foil to that No. 1, its Avis to Hertz, was playing like Joe Hacker on Tuesday afternoons at Azusa Greens.
Tiger was injured. Phil was just lousy. Golf, like our country, was in a holding pattern, waiting and hoping and praying for something to happen.
Then, it didn’t just rain. It poured.
Mickelson, who hadn’t hit the ball on the clubface in this calendar year, opened with an eight-under-par 63 in Thursday’s first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
He walked out of the interview room and, less than an hour later, a shot was fired from the other side of the country. Woods, at home in Florida, announced that his knee had healed enough for him to come back next week at the Accenture Match Play Championship near Tucson.
That was the buzz until Saturday, when Mickelson went to his holster, firing back with an incredible nine-under 62, one off the course record.
And so we arrive at today’s final round at Riviera, Mickelson four shots ahead and swinging like a dream and Tiger set to return and do the same. Fans of golf, as well as fans of great theater, can’t get enough of this stuff.
Rivalries take individual sports to new levels.
Men’s tennis is a prime example. It has flourished on McEnroe-Borg; Sampras-Agassi and now Federer-Nadal. With each, it was more than just two great players getting it on. It was two contrasting styles.
McEnroe-Borg was fire and ice. McEnroe never stopped talking and Borg never started. Sampras was the smooth-swinging bomber with the huge serve, Agassi the pigeon-toed baseliner who always hit the huge serve back. Federer is cool and calculating, Nadal sweaty and powerful. Federer ticks the lines, Nadal bombards them.
To that measure, Tiger and Phil are perfect.
Tiger marches the fairways with an almost militaristic resolve. Phil galumphs -- a word that isn’t really a word but a description. Tiger is cut like a defensive back. Phil is cut like a guy who sits at home in front of the TV and watches defensive backs.
Tiger fist pumps like Joe Louis throwing an uppercut. Phil fist pumps like he’s not sure he should.
Tiger, the best golfer in the world and a fan favorite in his own right, is also a corporation. Phil, among the best of the rest, has also made a ton of money, but still seems to hanker to be just another guy.
Saturday, during his incredible round, Mickelson walked off the 11th green toward the 12th tee, spotted a man and his 5-year-old son standing off to the side and tossed a golf ball to them.
“This is for your son,” Mickelson said.
There were no TV cameras aimed on him, nobody of any importance to impress.
“This is our first-ever golf tournament,” said dad Eric Hamilton. “I’m with the sheriff’s department and we just came out to support the event. My son [Matthew] is clueless. What a nice thing that was.”
The ball Mickelson tossed to Matthew Hamilton had just been used to make one of Mickelson’s seven birdies (he also had an eagle). It came on a 564-yard, par-five hole in which he drove the ball ugly left into high rough, somehow carved a three-iron around a tree to 78 yards away and hit a lob wedge to two feet. It wasn’t golf, it was magic.
Tiger exudes that too, as well as perpetual confidence and determination at all times. Phil exudes hope.
On a national conference call Friday to talk about his comeback, Tiger said he wasn’t going to the match-play event just to ease back into the game, but to win.
In Phil’s news conference after his 62 Saturday, it was mentioned that this could be his third victory in a row at Riviera, had he not lost that playoff two years ago to Charles Howell III.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Mickelson said.
We can’t help it.
In a sport that features perhaps 300 great touring golfers, there are currently two who really matter to the general public in this country. They are Tiger and Phil, and they are the yin and yang of their sport.
When the match-play event opens Wednesday, with a tennis-tournament-like draw of 64 players placed by their world rankings, Tiger will be No. 1 and will play current No. 64 Brendan Jones of Australia. Sergio Garcia is No. 2, Padraig Harrington No. 3, Vijay Singh No. 4 and Phil No. 5. If there are no dropouts before the pairings are set, Phil will play No. 60 Angel Cabrera, the 2007 U.S. Open champion from Argentina.
Then, if the golf gods are friendly, Tiger and Phil would win out to the semifinals, where they would go head to head Saturday.
Maybe that would be an omen for the entire country, which badly needs what it would bring.