Mickelson guru's gibes whet Tiger's appetite

As if there was not enough tension filling the air here in readiness for tomorrow's rare major head-to-head between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, then the latter's camp decided yesterday to shoehorn in a few more size 11s by claiming "nobody can beat our boy when he's at his best".

Talk about waving your baby above a saltwater crocodile. In fairness to Woods, though, he did not bite too furiously when told about Dave Pelz's comments after his US PGA Championship practice round. But then, this ultimate competitor always prefers to devour his opponents out on the course and his curt response to Mickelson's coach - "I am pretty tough to beat when I am playing well, too" - was surely a preview of his menu for the first and second rounds in Chicago.

The two finest players on the planet have only partnered each other once before in a major - at the Masters five years ago, when Woods won - and, starting on the first tee at 8.30am tomorrow, the world No 1 is determined to put the world No 2 in his place again. For a man who handles what he perceives as "disrespect" as kindly as the Corleones once did, Pelz's remarks are all the incentive he needs.

Speaking to an American reporter, Pelz declared: "When Phil's at his best, nobody can beat him."

"Does that include Tiger?" he was asked.

"You bet it does," Mickelson's guru replied, before explaining exactly why: "Phil's short game is the best in the world. He doesn't have a serious weakness inside 150 yards. Phil putts more consistently than Tiger does. He has more imagination and a few more shots around the green."

Pelz's comments were strange for a more important reason than their unsubstantiated content. Their timing was incredibly incendiary, which seems the last thing Mickelson needs in his current state. Since his final-hole capitulation at the US Open, the defending champion's form has fallen to earth so dramatically that last week he missed his first cut of the year at the International.

In direct contrast, Woods has returned to orbit, with his Open victory being followed up by another at the Buick a fortnight ago. This was the 30-year-old's 50th PGA Tour title and reaffirmed his status as the acknowledged master of the fairways.

Mickelson appeared embarrassed by the statements, not least because he and Woods have been getting on much better recently, and sought to make a joke of it. "What can I say about my man? He's enthusiastic," he said. "I've tried not to give you, the media, too much to run with, so I'm paying other people to do it." It was a brave attempt, but one that he knew was ultimately flawed. The damage had already been done.

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