Commentary

Tiger, Lefty take different paths in '12

Updated: July 5, 2012, 5:21 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

Whenever Tiger Woods does anything in the world of golf, especially when he wins a tournament like last week's AT&T National, many of us tend to watch closely, sending TV ratings skyrocketing.

If Woods gives us Sundays on the leaderboard 15 to 20 times a year -- more than a whole season of "Mad Men" -- the PGA Tour and its TV partners would be ecstatic. Each of Tiger's rounds is like a four-hour miniseries, often with enough drama to fill another three hours of prime-time TV. There are all kinds of subplots and twists in the story of his round to keep us engaged for hours.

For years, Phil Mickelson has been the other predictable ratings booster in the game. When Tiger and Phil played together in February in the final round at Pebble Beach, the Sunday telecast on CBS was up 96 percent from the previous year's coverage.

Like Tiger, Phil has a routine that works. The 42-year-old lefty is sometimes long and crooked, with a Houdini-like ability to escape from perilous situations on the golf course. He knows how to play to the crowd and draw inspiration from its encouragement.

Your dream match on the old Shell's Wonderful World of Golf might always be Tiger and Phil. Every time you see one of them in contention, it's easy to wonder how things might have gone if they were in it together in a head-to-head battle. Although the rivalry has never quite materialized into many great duels in the majors, their competitive drive to beat each other has been good for these two players, who have combined for 114 tour wins and 18 major championships.

Mickelson and Woods are both in the field this week at the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia. What's the likelihood that we'll see another ratings bonanza this weekend with the two of them paired together in the final round?

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Harry How/Getty ImagesSince his win in February at Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson has contented for several victories, but doesn't have any more titles to his name.

The last time they played together on a big Sunday was at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson shot a 64, beating Tiger by 11 shots, to win that event for the fourth time. Tiger's 75 didn't help calm concerns about his chances of ever winning again. His putter was balky and his swing was inconsistent.

Meanwhile, Phil's game was on the upswing. The next week at the Northern Trust in L.A., he lost in a playoff to Bill Haas. Then after a tie for fourth in Houston, he notched a T-3 at the Masters after a disappointing final round of even-par 72.

But since getting elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame prior to the start of the Players Championship in May, Mickelson hasn't been the same player. If he could have had his choice, he probably would have deferred the call to the Hall of Fame until after his retirement. It was very difficult for Mickelson to try to put his lifelong body of work into some perspective when he still has so much work to do. The career Grand Slam is still in his sights.

At the Memorial, he withdrew after a first-round 79, citing mental fatigue. But before he left Ohio, Mickelson raised a stink about cellphones on the golf course. At Olympic, he was energized by his paring with Tiger and Bubba Watson in the first two rounds, but he struggled to make the cut and was never in contention, finishing in a tie for 65th.

"The feeling and the excitement I got when I found out I was paired with Tiger the final round at Pebble got me excited and focused," Mickelson said. "And I felt a similar feeling when I found out we were paired together [in the U.S. Open]."

In those first two rounds at the U.S. Open, it was easy to see the different paths that Phil and Tiger had gone with their games since February. Tiger was growing into his swing, while Phil couldn't quite seem to get on the right track. Yet, it would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the year that at the halfway point of the season, Tiger would have easily surpassed Phil in wins.

Since Tiger was dusted by Phil at Pebble Beach, he's worked through some problems with his putting and golf swing to win three of his last seven tournaments.

More than five years older than the 36-year-old Tiger, Mickelson is moving into some difficult years to win major championships. Vijay Singh had 22 wins after turning 40, but only one of those victories was a major, and he was 41 when he won the '04 PGA Championship. (Mickelson just turned 42.) That year, Singh had nine wins and 18 top-10s on tour. It's hard to imagine an amazing year like that in Mickelson's future. And it's not because he's not good enough, but mostly because at this point in his life he's barely going to play 18 tournaments in a season, let alone have 18 top-10s.

Last year at Royal St. Georges, Mickelson nearly won the Open Championship. His tie for second was his best finish in 18 trips to the event. In recent years, he hasn't played a tournament between the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, but by playing this week at Greenbrier, it could be an indication that he wants to sharpen his game heading into Lytham.

In 2011, Mickelson missed the cut in his first appearance at Greenbrier, when it was held two weeks after the Open Championship. He said his performance at Royal St. Georges was a turning point in his season. He will have a chance this week on the Old White TPC course to try to bring his game to the level where it was when he won at Pebble Beach in February.