Planet Golf — 15 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
Phil deals Tiger a mental setback

It was inevitable that at some point Tiger Woods’ two-decade dominance on the PGA Tour would be displaced by all the bash young guns. What we didn’t see is that he would be overcome by a old howitzer in Phil Mickelson.

As commentator Bob Kostis said of the Woods-Mickelson pairing during Sunday’s CBS telecast of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, ”these are the only two guys who can make each other better.” He was half right. Mickelson, tied with Woods entering the round, was stellar while Woods slumped to a 75 and a tie for 15th place.

Where did Mickelson (pictured) come from? He won with a sizzling bogey-free, final-round 64 for a two-stroke victory. The 41-year-old three-time major champion had entered three previous tournaments this season, missed the cut in one and failed to finish in the top 25 in the other two.

The shocking element was Woods’ collapse. With the championship within reach – on a course in which he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes – Woods duffed his way down the leaderboard.

Not only was Mickelson’s shot-making superb but what was most impressive is the way he handled Woods. This was a mental gotcha, one that served notice that Woods can no longer treat his competitors like PGA pigeons. His name doesn’t carry the same length off the tee anymore.

Woods made several attempts at Mickelson with aggressive shots but Mickelson not only countered each one and cowed him with long birdie putts and precise approaches.

The most revealing tit-for-tat between them came on the 12th hole. Woods was in the bunker to the left of the hole while Mickelson was past the pin, looking at a fast, downhill 30-foot par putt. Woods lofted his ball over the lip and it rolled in the hole for a birdie. Mickelson took his time, steadied his jaw and dropped in his putt. That broke the spirit of the 14-time major champion.

This was the 30th time the two had been matched together, the 10th in the final round. Mickelson has won the past five times over Woods. Never by 11 strokes, however.

Woods, still putting together his refined Sean Foley-swing, hasn’t shown he can deal effectively with his challengers, young or old.

Inexplicably, he has missed a slew of really short putts, three feet in. But it could be his problem is his middle to short irons. They aer not getting him as close to the hole as in the past. He’s had to attempt more long putts. And they aren’t falling.

His distance and accuracy off the tee is about the same. He’s hitting fairways but his short game is struggling. You wonder if the 36-year-old’s eyesight has diminished slightly because he’s not seeing the breaks as well and as consistently as he once did.

What he need to do is play. This was his U.S. season debut (he played two weeks earlier in Dubai) but will not play this week at Riviera (Northern Trust Open). He just announced that he has added the Honda Classic March 1-4 to his schedule. He understands the need to grind.

It would have been unimaginable just a few years ago to think that Woods needed to play to catch up with his competitor – particularly his mental sharpness. But he does. That mental mojo is gone and the only way to recover is through competition. The Masters lurks in just two months.

All Hail Phil

Mickelson became the ninth player with at least 40 wins on the Tour, breaking his tie with Tom Watson and Cary Middlecoff.

Here is the career win list:

No. Player                       Wins

  1. Sam Snead                   82
  2. Jack Nicklaus              73
  3. Tiger Woods                71
  4. Ben Hogan                  64
  5. Arnold Palmer             62
  6. Byron Nelson              52
  7. Billy Casper                51
  8. Walter Hagen              45
  9. Phil Mickelson            40

He has now moved into second place all-time in Pebble Beach victories with four. Mark O’Meara leads with five.

Of his 40 wins, 17 were made in come-from-behind fashion. His comeback of six strokes after 54 holes matches his largest career comeback.

That seems to be the trend his season. Three weeks ago at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Brandt Snedeker came from six back of Kyle Stanley to win. Then one week later in Phoenix, Stanley came from eight back to overcome third-round leader Spencer Levin.

Levin finished in a tie for ninth at Pebble, a decent response to his failure. He said that Stanley gave him an example how to recover from devastation.

“That shows he’s a hell of a player obviously. But yeah, I guess it shows that you can recover from it,” Levin said. “I think I will.”

Luke Donald: World’s No. 1 debuts

It’s getting serious.

Luke Donald, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, gets into the swing this week at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. It will be his 2012 debut.

He will join a fairly intriguing field that also will feature 53-year-old Fred Couples in his 30th start at Riviera, as a sponsor’s exemption. He won the event in 1990 and 1992 and finished in a tie for seventh last year.

The top five players on the money list and top five in the Fed-Ex Standings will be there, including Mickelson. He will be paired with Stanley and Snedeker, the Torrey Pines duo.

Adam Scott, Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and double-heart transplant recipient Erik Compton also are in the field.

There also will be a couple prominent college stars as sponsor exemptions, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth. Cantlay, a junior at UCLA, is the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world. Spieth is a freshman at the University of Texas and the the No. 2-ranked collegiate player in the U.S.

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About Author

Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 53rd year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 19 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur the 2015 U.S. Open and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for Cascade Golfer Magazine and Destination Golfer. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, Aldarra near Seattle. Despite (or perhaps because) of his 14 handicap, he won the 'Super Senior'' (65 and older) championship in 2017. He has a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle.

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