James Lawton: Echoes of the Golden Bear's hunt for Palmer in Mickelson's taming of Tiger

The Nearly Man became whole, but is the sum of his parts greater than Tiger's?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When all the ceremonials and the platitudes were over it was reasonable to guess that the 70th Masters had bequeathed something other than merely the warm glow of respect and fondness that we like to think builds naturally around the great rivalries of sport.

No one, certainly, was betting against the possibility that the smiles worn by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson when the Green Jacket was exchanged here on Sunday night would become somewhat congealed long before the end of a potentially bitter summer.

It is an anticipated phase of the game which the golf cognoscenti are now convinced will produce the first authentic echoes of the kind of division which inflamed the American public when the young, brawny Jack Nicklaus first seriously challenged the beloved Arnie Palmer back in the early 1960s.

Palmer had an army of fans so passionate in its support one of them notoriously strode into deep rough and held up a banner which declared: "Hit it here, Fat Boy." That kind of acrimony has not yet surfaced publicly among the followers of Mickelson and Woods, but then never before has there been quite such a sense that the Tiger has been under any kind of serious threat.

Now, though, his status as a golfer utterly detached from the rest of his generation, and maybe the entire history of the game, will inevitably be reviewed in the bright light of Mickelson's startlingly consistent progress over the past two years, a fact of golfing life which could scarcely have been more dramatically confirmed over the past few days.

Before his triumph here in 2004 Mickelson was seen as an American hero who had unaccountably mislaid his glory. He could shoot the lights out of almost any course you might care to mention, he could inspire from any gallery cries of "You the man", but the plain fact was that he wasn't. Tiger was the man. He could do something that Mickelson couldn't. He could win a major title at the age of 21 with such authority that it seemed the game had not only been conquered but redefined. Mickelson, blazing with talent, couldn't win a major in 42 attempts. He was the ultimate nearly man but that was before he charged home two years ago to applause that may have been matched but never exceeded in nearly 80 years down Magnolia Lane.

The truth - and it was plain enough here on Sunday when Mickelson won his third major in two years against Tiger's two - that if Woods is golf's phenomenon, Mickelson is America's boy. This difference is likely to be pointedly evident if the two, as every golf promoter will surely now crave, come head to head in the coming months, ideally in a major tournament on American soil.

Not unhelpful to this dynamic is the fact that Woods and Mickelson would naturally avoid each other's company quite strenuously anywhere other than on a golf course, something that was painfully obvious in Michigan at the last Ryder Cup, when Colin Montgomerie, a sadly peripheral figure here, gleefully tore into their ill-conceived partnership.

Mickelson is adored in the galleries, but some words from the locker-room are that his charm tends to diminish in the company of his fellow pros. Ironically, in Woods' case the position is somewhat reversed. While Mickelson's playing partner on Sunday, the veteran Fred Couples, declared that: "Phil has got maybe more talent than anyone out there in his hands and in his game" - and failed to apply the usual rider, "except Tiger" - there is still deep reverence among the pros for the scale of both Woods' pure ability and nerve. However, many fans have long complained about a certain arrogance, of someone less, say, embraceable, than the almost permanently smiling Mickelson, and there is a theory that this will become manifest if Mickelson maintains the current strength of his game.

"Hit it here, Tiger" placards may be some time away but the possibility of such, after all the years of his success, and his 10-3 lead over Mickelson in major victories, cannot be entirely discounted.

This, no doubt, is for the moment causing less than dismay in the handlers of the Tiger's astonishingly lucrative business affairs, but the fact that some of kind of challenge has been launched to his hold on the game cannot be questioned.

The Tiger's response in the immediate future may well be conditioned to some extent by his current anguish over the desperately failing health of his father Earl - unquestionably a factor here - but in the longer term there is little doubt that the need to deal with the Mickelson threat will be large in his mind.

Mickelson did confess to a psychological mauling when he was beaten by Woods at the Doral tournament on the run-in to last year's Masters, which, despite some erratic moments, was won ultimately by the conjuring of some of the most bewitching play ever seen in a major tournament. For Woods the discomfort of surrendering his Green Jacket to Mickelson on Sunday was compounded, at least to some degree, by some critical reaction to his unguarded comment that he had putted like a "spaz". Some interpreted this as a grievous insult to handicapped people all over the world; others said it that was the verbal slip of a man under considerable stress. Certainly the latter group would reject out of hand the idea that Woods is lacking any basic sensitivity, or that his use of a term that long ago became anachronistic said anything about his essential character.

In a game which is not exactly unfamiliar with politically incorrect language Woods no doubt will survive the error without too much damage, certainly not as much as that sustained by the broadcaster and former player Gary McCord, who long ago was banned from Augusta for a reference to greens so slick they might have been "bikini waxed". Last week McCord was pulled out of a business-sponsored celebrity tournament after introducing Woods' friend and fellow player, Mark O'Meara, to a first-tee crowd as "Tiger's bitch". For most followers of golf the Tiger's occasional use of rough language on the course will surely be balanced by the fact that no sportsman who ever lived has had to do his work with more intense television scrutiny.

What isn't in question, though, is the extent of Woods' latest challenge.

This time last year, before he gathered in the Masters and Open titles and moved to within eight majors of Nicklaus' record of 18, the theory was that he had become just part of the Big Five, ranked one below Vijay Singh and marginally ahead of Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. That was enough to spark the Masters win over the battling journeyman Chris DiMarco and an almost formal annexation of the Open at St Andrew's. However, if he could regain his No 1 ranking, and move closer to the great Nicklaus in the annals of the game, he couldn't shake off Mickelson. Plainly, the Nearly Man has become whole.

But then is the sum of his parts really greater than Tiger's? Can he over the long battle that he has now engaged produce quite the combination of imagination and technical brilliance that on his best days flows out of Woods in an overwhelming, bewildering profusion? Does he have the resilience that so regularly marked the work of Woods over the past few days when, plainly, he was some way from his best. How well would Mickelson have withstood the pressure if Woods had not accountably failed to deliver relatively short killer putts after some superlative approach work? Mickelson's army say that he can do all of that; he is a man who has unlocked the door and set free all of his old inhibitions. Current evidence is certainly favourable to the idea. He came to Augusta on a flood tide of easily marshalled facility after engulfing the field at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. No question, he was a fine winner of the Masters, a man in control of himself and almost everything he attempted to do.

So why is there a certain reluctance here to believe that the Tiger has been given, finally, a little more than he can handle? It is because of an unswerving conviction that has grown unshakeably over the past 10 years. It is that while Phil Mickelson has proved himself a great golfer, Tiger Woods remains unique. You give him the kind of challenge that Mickelson has re-presented here, with his double-driver innovation and soaring confidence, and you have displayed exemplary nerve and an arresting level of talent. But then you had better be prepared for the consequences. One of them may well be a day when the overwhelming urge is to run for cover.

Comments