After death and taxes, is there anything more certain than the relentless hope of men past their prime? For much of the past 20 years those twin pillars of American golf, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, have set the agenda. They continue to do so in 2015 but no longer do the terms of reference embrace victory, other than in their own imaginations – and in the hearts of America.
Mickelson turned 45 on Tuesday, the same age as Hale Irwin when he won his third and final US Open. Irwin remains the oldest winner of America’s national tournament, yet Mickelson persists with the idea that victory in the only major he has never won might still be his. The 65 he shot last Sunday to tie for third at the St Jude Classic was seen as evidence of a new dawn breaking, rather than an anomalous spike in an otherwise downward trend.
Woods at 39 simply can’t let go of the player he was, though the numbers severed ties long ago. His last major victory came in 2008 in this event at Torrey Pines. There was an approximation to the Titan who triumphed against Rocco Mediate that day when, two years ago, Woods won five times to reclaim briefly his world No 1 ranking. Since then, worse than zip.
He posted his highest score as a pro in his last event, 85, on the third day at the Memorial Tournament. Earlier this year he shot an 82 for the second time in his career while missing the cut in Phoenix. A week later he failed to finish his second round at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open, yet after a two-month self-imposed hiatus, he returned at the Masters to claim at top-20 finish.
The glass being half full, it was the Masters that Woods emphasised in making the argument for his renewal, not the failures. He is hard-wired to see in trends the upward momentum, not the reverse gear. “This year certainly has been a struggle,” he said yesterday. “But for me to go through what I went through at Torrey and Phoenix, to come back and do what I did at Augusta gave me a lot of confidence going forward.”
But it could not protect him from the 85 at Memorial, and Chambers Bay, a public links course about which the pros know nothing in tournament nick, has the potential to exacerbate the inconsistencies in any game, let alone one as fragile as his, one that has seen him collapse to 195 in the world rankings by the way.
Mickelson is at least holding on to his top-20 station despite failing to record a victory anywhere since his fifth major success at Muirfield two years ago. His third-place finish at the PGA Championship last year came from nowhere and until last week had not been repeated. “I’ve gone through kind of a period these last couple of years where I haven’t played my best golf, and I feel like I’m back on the upswing. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet or not. This week will be a good test to see just how far along I’ve come.”
If that sounds like a sensible appraisal, objectivity suffers when the narrative of the “Lefty Slam” is introduced. Mickelson should have completed his major set in 2013 at Merion, where he led for all but the last few holes before being overhauled by a younger man hitting a mighty peak, Justin Rose. After finishing as the bridesmaid five times previously in this event, that was the moment when fate beckoned.
Mickelson missed his cue. Romance might embrace the idea of a seventh opportunity, but reality bites hard in this event, and in this setting, host to so many variables and lightning quick greens, only those in form and the lucky will advance.
To his credit Mickelson advances with a hint of caution nowhere to be seen in Woods’ landscape, though we take with a pinch of salt his denial of a sense of urgency to get it done at 45. “I don’t feel that urgency you talk about,” he said. “Something I really would love to do is complete the career Grand Slam. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in. I haven’t had any really long-term or debilitating injuries to speak of. So if I continue to do what I’ve done the last eight months or so, there’s no reason why I couldn’t play at a high level for a while.
“But saying that, the last two years, my technique and my form has not been what I expect it to be, what it’s been throughout the course of my career. It’s been very frustrating.
“Recently, though, I feel like I’m getting my swing plane back, making solid contact, hitting the shots that I expect to hit. But it’s in its infancy. I don’t know how far or how long it will take to get it really sharp. But I saw a really good glimpse last week. Maybe it’s this week, maybe it isn’t.”
Stalking the visions of Woods and Mickelson are golf’s new power couple, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, No 1 and No 2 in the world respectively and holders of the last three major championships. Spieth equalled Woods in winning the Masters at the age of 21 two months ago. Since then McIlroy has won twice on the PGA Tour in the space of three weeks.
Expect them to dump a youthful corrective on the dreams of old men.