Mickelson closes on Woods

World No 2 is in an ideal position to knock Tiger off top spot at Sawgrass
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The Independent Online

Phil Mickelson acknowledges there will come a day where he sits in his rocking chair, scrolls down his roll of golfing achievements and checks to see that he was the world No 1, "even for just one week". Starting today at Sawgrass he has what many in golf believe to be is his finest chance of finally overhauling Tiger Woods.

Mickelson, of course, has been in this position before; indeed at his last three tournaments the three-time major winner went in knowing that victory could knock Woods off his perch.

Yet, interestingly, these recent shortfalls do not seem to make his elevation this week any less likely. Woods has a quite awful record in his six Players Champions, having not finished in the top 10 once since his sole victory there in 2001. Meanwhile, Mickelson won the event otherwise knows as "the fifth major" two years ago and appears ominously primed to do so again.

Certainly he has the added incentive. " I think when I come to look back on my career, that it would mean a lot to me to be able to say that at one point I was No 1," said Mickelson yesterday. "Even if it was for just a week, a month or whatever... It is a goal that all of us would say would be pretty cool and it is something I am striving to accomplish."

The maths is straightforward. If he wins and Woods comes outside the top four then golf will have a new master for the first time in more than four years. Statistically speaking only, of course.

As Geoff Ogilvy, the world No 3, pointed out, even if Woods was deposed as No 1, he would remain undisputedly the best player on the planet. The truth is that Mickelson is on the verge of playing some of the best golf of his professional life, while Woods is struggling in certain aspects of his game after his eight-month absence due to knee surgery. It is a mark of his genius to be able to apply the adjective "struggling" to a golfer who has won one of the four strokeplay tournaments he has contested since coming back 10 weeks ago – and finished in the top 10 in the others. But these are the standards he sets himself, and, at the the moment, his driving, in particular, is holding him back.

Woods is on course (or more to the point, all too often "off it") to record his worst seasonal driving-accuracy percentage of his career. The 0.576 number means he is missing almost as many fairways as he is hitting and has been especially blighted by ghastly high hooks. Then there is all the distance he has lost, alarming to some perhaps who whisper about the limitations of the "new" knee, but not to Woods who sees it as a mere case in progress. "I've been away from the game for a long time," said Woods, who finished fourth at Quail Hollow last week. "It's going to take a little bit of time before my body gets back to where I can hit the ball long distances."

Mickelson saw this for himself when partnering Woods in the never-to-be-forgotten final round of the Masters last month. "I kept having to wait for him to hit, sure," joked Mickelson as reporters at Sawgrass asked him about out-booming his nemesis that day. In contrast, his own driving game is positively turbocharged. "I have not driven the ball this long, this straight before, and my short game is as good as it's been," said Mickelson. "The last piece is the iron play."

If Mickelson manages to sort out that last but crucial aspect, he will pose a mighty challenge on the layout with the infamous 17th island green. If only the same could be said about the British contingent, which includes Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Justin Rose. Only one Briton has ever lifted this trophy; Sandy Lyle way back in 1987. And there was Tiger thinking his Sawgrass record was poor.