Eighteen months ago Phil Mickelson, who had still not won a major championship, began a thorough renovation of his game. Six months after that Tiger Woods, winner of eight majors, decided to overhaul what had been the best swing in golf. On Sunday, in a final-round matchup that everyone in the golf world had been longing to see, the two biggest names on the Tour were at the top of their games, tied at 23 under par as they stood on the 17th green of the Ford Championship at Doral. Mickelson was in close for par, and Woods was grinding over a 28-footer for birdie. During his remarkable run in 2000, when he won three majors and distanced himself from his peers, Woods seemingly made these putts with ease. But then his entire game began to suffer as he tinkered with his swing, and skeptics wondered whether he could regain his old magic. Any doubts were removed on Sunday when the ball rolled into the heart of the cup.
More than anything the dream pairing of Woods and Mickelson demonstrated how nothing, and everything, has changed. The end result, a one-shot Woods victory to go along with a tournament record 24-under total, was all too familiar. That the win reinstated him as the No. 1 player in the World Ranking reinforced the impression that his recent five-month hiatus from the top spot was a blip, an aberration.
Conspicuously absent, though, was Woods's aura of invincibility. Yes, something had changed (besides Mickelson's victory total in majors), but pinpointing what was not easy. Perhaps the New Tiger is still a work in progress, not yet the equal of the dominating Tiger Classic. It may also be that Tiger's rivals, Mickelson in particular, have improved so greatly that they've closed the competitive gap. Whatever the case, the final round at Doral provided the most stirring duel in recent memory and bespoke a new level of parity among the world's top players with the Players Championship and the Masters looming.
Woods's two other principal rivals, Ernie Els and former No. 1 Vijay Singh, also had impressive weekends. Els won the Dubai Desert Classic, in the United Arab Emirates, eagling the final hole to beat Miguel Angel Jimenez by a stroke. Singh, playing at Doral, tied for third, five shots behind Woods, and would have scared the leaders had it not been for his atrocious putting. Singh missed eight of 22 putts between three and seven feet. Woods missed none from that range.
Yet Mickelson's performance installed him as Woods's worthiest challenger. Since revamping his game, the 34-year-old Mickelson has played the best golf of his career, and he has the trophies--and Masters jacket--to prove it. His triumph at Augusta was one of two victories in 2004, and he jump-started the 2005 season with consecutive-week wins at the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Despite a third-round exit at the recent Accenture Match Play, Mickelson arrived in Miami as the hottest player in the game.
Woods had been spottier at the start of this year. His win at the Buick Invitational in San Diego in January was his first PGA Tour stroke-play victory since late 2003, but he won while "playing lousy," according to Tom Lehman, one of his partners in the final round. Before Doral, Woods had, by his own admission, played only one round in '05 during which he did not fight his driver, his putter or both (a second-round 63 at the Buick).
All the pieces finally came together at Doral. Tied for fifth at a respectable nine under after the second round, Woods exploded on Saturday with a nine-under 63, including a six-under 30 on the back nine, to set up the final-round pairing with Mickelson, who had a two-stroke edge. Most remarkable about Woods's performance was the reappearance of the Wow Factor--his ability to hit shots that mere mortals would not even think of playing. On the back nine he hit 270-yard three-wood shots to both par-5s and drove the green at the 347-yard, par-4 16th. He made easy birdies on all three holes.
Then on Sunday he reached the 603-yard 12th in two again, and this time Woods dropped his 25-foot eagle putt to go to 24 under and surge two strokes ahead of Mickelson, taking the outright lead for the first time. Mickelson fought back with birdies on 13 and 14, but he never went ahead again.
The duel unfolded in an atmosphere Woods would later call "electric." Crowded onto Doral's Blue Monster were 35,000 fans, six-deep in places. The galleries were a riot of noise, bare skin and cigar smoke.
Ford, the tournament's sponsor, could not have been more pleased. The company did everything to ensure the tournament's success, including paying four players--Singh, Sergio García, Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington--a reported $150,000 each to participate in a corporate outing on the Monday before the tournament started. In the eyes of some, the payouts were designed to secure the players' participation in the main event, a breach of a Tour rule prohibiting appearance fees. However, a Ford spokesman said the company had made the Tour aware of what it was doing and that everything had been done within the rules.
No one could put a price tag on the final pairing, especially because it featured Woods, still the most recognizable athlete in sports, and Mickelson, not only Ford's highest-profile endorser but also Woods's perfect foil. The coolness between the two is the Tour's most-open secret. That didn't stop U.S. captain Hal Sutton from pairing them--with disastrous results--in two matches of the 2004 Ryder Cup. During their two losses Mickelson and Woods were clearly uncomfortable together. The physical distance between them was often so great that they seemed to be playing different holes.
For Mickelson especially, the Ryder Cup was a disaster. His failure to produce points (he went 1-3) was linked to his decision to change equipment a week before the matches. It was the undisputed low point of what had been a magical season.
However unpleasant, the relationship between Mickelson and Woods served as the springboard for much levity when they met the media last Saturday night. At one point Mickelson expressed the hope that he and Woods could make enough birdies to prevent players two or more shots behind them from making a run. Then he noted, "If we play anything like we did at the Ryder Cup, that's a very real possibility."
The evening's principal theme, though, was Mickelson's eagerness to go head-to-head with Woods. "I wanted him to play well," Mickelson insisted.
So it came to pass, almost. Late in Sunday's round, Woods, not quite at his best, made one miscue, and it almost cost him the tournament. The 16th hole--the par-4 Woods had driven a day earlier--was playing slightly longer, at 362 yards. Still tied, Mickelson hit a three-wood into a fairway bunker, while Woods went with driver. After a swing that looked like something out of a samurai movie, Woods was left with a 20-yard pitch over a bunker to a front pin. Playing it too cute, he dumped his ball into the sand, a mistake Tiger Classic would not have made, and ended up with bogey.
Mickelson then returned the favor, lipping out a five-foot par putt that would have given him the lead. Woods regained the upper hand on 17, and after Mickelson lipped out a birdie chip at the 72nd hole, Woods had his 42nd Tour victory. It marked only the fourth time he had won without leading after any of the first three rounds.
Mickelson seemed to take the defeat well. "Losing today," he said, "was probably the best thing that could have happened to me heading into the majors. I'm going to work my tail off to [shave] a couple more shots, so when I come to the Players Championship and the Masters, I [will] be ready."
A little more change, in other words, is in order. ‚ñ†