If only Phil Mickelson had better equipment, huh? If only Phil had Tiger Woods's "inferior equipment" in his bag. If only Phil stopped going for distance and started going for control. If only Phil dropped a long putt or two on the front nine. (If only Phil wasn't wearing a Ford logo on his shirt as large as a dinner plate!) Maybe then we wouldn't be muttering, "I told you so" today at the sadly predictable happenings at Torrey Pines yesterday. Yes, Phil was longer off the tee than Tiger. And yes, Tiger was shorter where it counts most, on the scorecard.
CBS got the Dream Sunday it must have fantasized about: A blizzard in the Northeast keeping everybody at home from Washington to New York City, and Tiger and Phil in the last group, barely a week and a half after Phil's notorious comments about what's in Tiger's bag. And once again Sunday became a nightmare for Mickelson. When Tiger was at high tide, Phil was near ebb. Mickelson began the round two shots behind Tiger. By the end of 12 holes, Mickelson was seven shots behind him and off the leader board.
It was ever thus: Tiger plays his best on Sunday, Phil doesn't. And what made it worse for Phil was being in the same group with Tiger. Tiger always buries the guys he plays with on Sunday. The shovel of dirt came out on No. 11, which Mickelson bogeyed and Tiger birdied after a spectacular 231-yard 4-iron off the tee that landed about four feet from the hole. After that, one of the TV guys studied Mickelson's face and announced, "Phil looks defeated."
Ultimately, Tiger shot 68, and beat Mickelson by six shots (and the third man in the group, Brad Faxon, by five). But let's leave Phil alone for the moment and concentrate on the larger significance of Tiger winning in his first tournament back. Come on, if Tiger walks onto the tour cold after three months and wins the tournament -- how demoralizing is that to the other players? What can they hope to win that Tiger enters? (And what else is there to look forward to this year on the tour, other than Annika making the cut at the Colonial?) Tiger makes it look so easy, so effortless. It's like it used to be when Larry Bird walked onto the court for the three-point contest during All-Star Weekend, still wearing his warm-up jacket, and asked his competitors, "Okay, which one of you guys is playing for second?"
That's how good Tiger is right now. The only guy out there who might be able to touch him is Ernie Els, who is out of the country now, rolling over everybody in Asia and Australia. Maybe Els, flush with cash, can come back and beat Tiger. But would you want to bet on it? Last year Tiger was the best player in the world on one good leg! What's he going to do this year on two?
Some people will probably say they got bored by the way it turned out, with Tiger blowing past Mickelson. Not me. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a snowbound afternoon than watching Tiger and Lefty play golf in sunny Southern California. Talk about being in denial. I imagined myself in the gallery walking along with them, the sun on my face, a soft breeze at my back. Unfortunately, every few minutes there'd be a commercial break, and I'd glance outside my window, see another half-foot of snow piled up and wonder whatever became of my dog. Well, I'll see her in March, I guess.
To CBS's credit, its coverage continued to focus on Woods and Mickelson even after the gap between them was the size of that Ford logo on Lefty's shirt. The truth is nobody wanted to see Jonathan Kaye and Carl Pettersson (who looks like somebody from a fat ABBA cover band) no matter how far up the leader board they climbed. Heck, nobody wanted to see Faxon, and he was playing with Tiger and Lefty! Actually, one of the best moments of the day came on the 18th hole, when the cameras caught Phil and Tiger walking up the fairway to the green together laughing. Maybe they really are pals.
The anticipation of their serendipitous pairing was such that it took up most of the Sunday morning sports-talk shows, where, incidentally, nobody gave Mickelson a chance. To hear people talk, Phil Collins had a better shot. (One guy said he'd "hate to be Phil Mickelson today," which I found amusing, because I'd rather be the younger, richer, better-looking Phil than that guy seven days a week.) On one show, a columnist claimed it was only Tiger's "athletic ability" that allowed Tiger to come back so quickly, and that "nobody else on the tour" could have done it. That's ridiculous. There are men on tour as athletic as Tiger, as motivated, as focused -- they're just lesser golfers. Tiger may well be the best golfer we've ever seen, but there's no need to make him into Jesse Owens.
Tiger doesn't need hyperbole. It already surrounds him. By winning in his first tournament back after knee surgery, he simply adds another layer to his legend. There's nobody like him in sports today. Kobe Bryant is fantastic with a basketball. Barry Bonds is a thrill every time he gets up. Michael Vick is electric, a blur. It's great to see Andre Agassi. And LeBron James has our attention. But nobody, nobody, makes the needle move like Tiger Woods.