This is a thank-you note to Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els for saving golf as we know it now that Tiger Woods has, um, gone away.
Exactly where is Tiger these days?
Hint: Not on the leader board at the majors.
Tiger hasn't had a sniff of a major all year. Tiger has been going out so early on Sunday that he's making the turn before "Meet The Press." Lately, the only difference between Tiger and David Duval is that Duval sleeps in on Sundays. So many of us used to plan our late Sunday afternoons around watching a guy in a red shirt. What are we supposed to do now, wait for the Kansas City Chiefs to have a home game?
Seriously, what happened to the greatest golfer in history?
Tiger was loudly and widely proclaimed the next Jack Nicklaus. And with eight majors in his first 19 tries, who could argue? But in the last couple of years Tiger has won the same number of majors as the last Jack Nicklaus: none. Tiger is 0 for his last 9. And what we're learning about Tiger in majors is that if he's not playing from the lead, he isn't going to win. He doesn't seem to have that extra gear to shift into on weekends. Most of the time when we hear from Tiger these days, it's in response to the latest arrest warrant issued for his caddie Steve "Give Me That Camera Or I'll Snap Your Neck Like A Twig, You Little Geek" Williams. Seriously, is this guy a caddie or Luca Brasi? I know Steve has a flat fee arrangement with Tiger. I wonder if the fee includes bail money.
Remember last year when nobody was allowed to say that Tiger was in a "slump"? Tiger objected to the term because even though he wasn't winning majors, he was winning other tournaments. Well, now he's not winning anything. When he's wide right off the tee -- which is often -- you want to walk up to him and say, "Here's a dime. Call Butch."
Thankfully, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els have stepped into the breach.
Their record at majors this year is sensational. If I were writing this column for an AARP newsletter, I would say Mickelson has put up a Lawrence Welk: A one anna two anna three. (I love references like these, that nobody without dentures understands.) If Phil finishes fourth in the PGA, has he hit for the cycle? You know those dopey Ford commercials that ask, "What Will Phil Do Next?" The correct answer may well be: Become No. 1.
Els has played in the final Sunday twosome in all three majors. Mickelson caught and passed him at the Masters with one of the greatest back nines ever; Ernie ran out of gas at the U.S. Open against Retief Goosen; Ernie caught Todd Hamilton on the 72nd hole of the British Open, but lost their playoff. Had Els made his putt on 18, and finished his Sunday round at Royal Troon in birdie-birdie-birdie, it would have been cheered as one of the great finishes of all time.
(By the way . . . Todd Hamilton? Be honest now, if I'd asked you last Thursday to name all the famous Hamiltons, how many would you have gone through before you got to Todd? Alexander, Margaret, Scott, George, Linda, Hamilton Burger. You'd have gone through them and more before you got to Todd Hamilton -- because you'd never have gotten to Todd Hamilton. Before this weekend nobody had heard of Todd Hamilton, except Mrs. Todd Hamilton.)
In the 19 majors beginning with the 2000 Masters, Els has 13 top-10s, including one win, the 2001 British Open, and five seconds. Mickelson has 11 top-10s, including his one win, the 2004 Masters, three seconds and four thirds.
Anyone miss Tiger yet?
Okay, okay, I'm not saying Tiger is done. In fact, I still think he's the best golfer on the planet. He's going through the sort of slump that Nicklaus went through a couple of times. I need to point out that in three of Els's seconds he was beaten by Tiger. By this time next year, Tiger may well have won a couple of majors and reasserted himself as the No. 1 golfer. But right now, today, Mickelson and Els are ahead of him. And they are playing so well and so consistently in majors that golf hasn't taken the kind of hit the NBA took when Michael Jordan left the Bulls.
I don't know that Phil or Ernie is ever going to have the recognition or star power Tiger Woods has. Tiger has endorsement deals for products I had never even heard of. Like Tag Heuer. Somebody told me that's a watch. I thought it was the prime minister of Austria. I can't see Ernie or Phil getting the kind of mega-deals Tiger has. I mean, Tiger carries himself so majestically. For all the ease of his swing, Ernie has a bit of a slouch. Ernie Els -- doesn't the name sound like he should be a bass master?
And as likable as Phil is, Phil is also so, so, well, Phil is so darn lumpy. (Have you noticed how this year Phil's smiling all the time, even when he gets a double? Doesn't it seem like Phil is on mood stabilizers? That smile can be so disconcerting; it's like that's not really Phil out there, but some Stepford Phil.) Maybe the lumpiness can help. Phil looks a lot more like the rest of us than Tiger and Ernie do. If Phil wins a couple more majors, he can come out with his own clothing line for lumpy guys. You know how Greg Norman has that shark logo, and Nicklaus has the golden bear? Phil can have a logo of a guy afraid to take off his shirt at the beach. Or, for that matter, anywhere there was light. I know I'd buy it.