Updated: May 6, 2010, 10:42 AM ET

Opportunity knocks for Lefty at Sawgrass

Harig By Bob Harig
ESPN.com
Archive

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The news that Phil Mickelson can rise to No. 1 in the world is only surprising in that he's never made it to that lofty perch.

For all Lefty has accomplished in the game -- 38 PGA Tour victories, including four major championships -- he's never ascended to the top spot, mainly because of a certain someone who has been there for an astounding 598 weeks in his career.

Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaPhil Mickelson needs a victory and a Tiger Woods finish of sixth or worse at this week's Players Championship to take over the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Tiger Woods has stolen a lot of glory from others, and it is impossible to know how much better Mickelson's career might look if Tiger had never come along.

Perhaps this puts it in better perspective: In the 24-year history of the Official World Golf Ranking, only 12 players have held the top spot, including Ian Woosnam (50 weeks) and Tom Lehman (one week).

Their combined victories on both the PGA and European tours don't equal Mickelson's total, and they combined to win half the number of majors.

Timing is obviously a big factor, and Mickelson's has not been the best. He managed to turn pro four years before Woods and accumulated nine PGA Tour victories before Tiger got his first. But he's never led the money list, never been player of the year, never posted the lowest scoring average.

So this week's Players Championship offers another opportunity. A Mickelson victory coupled with a Woods finish outside of the top-5 would push Lefty to the top.

"It's every player's goal and intent to strive to be recognized as the No. 1 player in the world relative to the rankings," Mickelson said. "It's certainly something that I have been striving for but have not achieved yet. And so it would mean a lot to me.

"But for me to accomplish that, I can't focus on that. I've got to go out and get ready to play this golf course because it's not an easy challenge, and for me to have a chance to achieve No. 1, I've got to win. So I've got a lot of work ahead."

For what it's worth, Mickelson could have moved to No. 1 at the Players a year ago had certain circumstances occurred, including a victory by him; he tied for 55th.

And Woods himself probably put the situation into perspective the best, explaining that both David Duval (15 weeks) and Vijay Singh (32 weeks) have overtaken him since he first got to No. 1.

"I've had it happen before, Double D and Vijay," Woods said. "I've had it happen before, and the whole idea to be No. 1 and to continue being No. 1 ... you have to continue to win golf tournaments. And I haven't done that in a while. I haven't played in a while."

The Players Championship debate

For years, the PGA Tour went overboard pushing its signature event as the fifth major championship. Since the tournament moved to May in 2007, however, the tour seems content to let it stand on its own as a premier event with an excellent field. A good move.

Still, the debate about where it stands in the golf hierarchy continues, and Lee Westwood last week suggested it doesn't rank any better than eighth.

The Englishman said he puts the World Golf Championship events ahead of the Players, and for someone who is not a member of the PGA Tour, that probably makes sense. The WGCs are limited field events with top-heavy fields that count on the European Tour as well. The Players Championship is strictly a PGA Tour event.

And yet, it would be hard to place it behind the WGCs. First, there is no comparison in field strength. The Players has a full field. The WGCs also don't have a cut, which makes them more of a money grab and easier for players to put it on cruise control.

The Players has had its detractors over the years, and you can argue the merits of the Stadium Course. But the fact it returns to such a famous -- or infamous -- venue each year helps make the tournament what it is.

"I would say I think this event is much bigger," said Tiger Woods, who has a single Players Championship title on his résumé and 16 WGC titles. "The field is so much deeper. Generally you probably get, what, 95 out of the top 100 players in the world each and every year. And you don't really get that in all the World Golf Championships. Usually the cutoff is around 50. This field is so much deeper, and I think it's played on a much more difficult golf course."

Harig's head-scratcher of the week

Phil Mickelson has been known to speak his mind, especially if he has an agenda, such as in the conforming grooves controversy earlier this year.

But it was difficult to decipher his motives over the weekend at Quail Hollow where he went out of his way to criticize the greens.

"For as beautifully designed as this golf course is from tee to green, the greens are some of the worst designed greens that we have on tour, and 18 is one of them," Mickelson said. "I would say 18 is the worst on tour, except it's not the worst on this golf course, 12 is, and we have some ridiculous putts here that you just can't keep on."

Mickelson had a long birdie putt on the 18th hole on Saturday that he did not even attempt to make, aiming well to the right of the hole. In fact, he didn't even have his caddie tend the pin, so sure was Mickelson that he'd be going nowhere near it.

Lefty is certainly entitled to his opinion, and the greens at Quail Hollow are severe, but it still seems puzzling that Mickelson would go to such extremes to call them out. Nobody else was complaining. The winning score was 15 under par. Rory McIlory shot a final-round 62. Phil shot 68 to finish second.

Perhaps his beef was with the way the course was set up and where some of the pins were positioned.

Quail Hollow remains one of the most popular events on tour, and Mickelson lauded the rest of the course. Quail Hollow is discussing the possibility of getting involved in hosting either a future PGA Championship or Ryder Cup.

So you want to play ...

... TPC Sawgrass. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is now in its 29th year as home to the Players Championship at PGA Tour headquarters. The course is part of a Marriott resort and typically requires an overnight stay to play the course, although at various times of the year there is access to the venue for outside play.

The green fee for a single player on the Stadium Course, for example, is $375. But there are numerous rates and stay and play packages available and some include rounds on the nearby Valley Course, which hosts a Nationwide Tour event.

The Stadium Course has evolved into one of the most famous in the world, due mostly to the controversial 17th hole island green and because the world's best have been coming here for years.

It didn't start out that way. Designer Pete Dye was initially panned when the tournament was played at the venue for the first time in 1982. But over time, and with adjustments, it has evolved into a well-respected course.

The tournament dates to 1974, when it moved to different venues starting with Atlanta Athletic Club, where Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural. After going to Colonial and Inverrary, the event moved to Sawgrass Country Club -- across the street from the TPC complex -- in 1977 and stayed there through 1981.

For more information, visit www.tpc.com/sawgrass.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?