Lateral Hazard: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods reverse roles in epic final round at Pebble Beach
The place: Pebble Beach.
The day: Sunday.
The scores: Phil 64, Tiger 75.
Scribes and pundits, commence pontificating.
It’s a deep thinker’s dream, this whole scene. It’s payment in spades for week after week of anonymous winners, of buzz-free golf Sundays. It’s a perfect storm of intersecting career arcs, golf’s two most decorated players and a Bird/Magic-like rivalry that we see too rarely.
Then again, we should be thankful we saw it at all. CBS’ contractual obligation to show the end of the Michigan-Illinois foul extravaganza, er, uh, basketball game meant golf fans were denied a key stretch of golf where Mickelson eagled No. 6, and Tiger bogeyed Nos. 7 and 8.
That’s OK, though. Those holes at Pebble Beach aren’t very attractive and don’t televise well. Besides, tectonic shifts on leaderboards and the golf power structure are overrated anyway.
And if CBS promises not to delay Tiger/Phil at Pebble any more, I promise not to write sentences dripping in bitter sarcasm.
By the time the network brought the unbeatable Monterey Peninsula coastline to our home, all was forgiven. How could you beat the storylines? What a soaring day for Lefty’s lore! What a damaging day for Tiger’s struggle to regain relevance! What a disappointing 74 from Ken Duke!
(Note to self: Duke doesn’t exactly fit Tiger/Phil epic drama. Leave Duke references out until further review.)
Round 4 of the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am could be remembered for many things. We had another big 54-hole lead surrendered (Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levin: Welcome Charlie Wi to your club.) Or another weird Sunday from Dustin Johnson, stoking the ongoing debate of whether he’s a brilliant, misunderstood talent or just a forehead slap in-waiting.
But the day will be remembered for only one thing. Or, should I say, two:
Phil and Tiger.
Never in their nearly two-decade rivalry had the dynamic produced the utter destruction of Tiger at the hands of Phil.
Granted, Lefty has played better than Tiger in head-to-head pairings the last few years. Many reasons can be attributed to this: Tiger’s bad health and ensuing poor play, Tiger’s apparent lost confidence since the Escalade-into-the-tree on Thanksgiving Night 2009 and Phil’s hiring of Tiger’s old swing coach, Butch Harmon, who has provided tips on getting the mental edge on Tiger.
Notably, Phil outplayed Tiger head-to-head in the final round of the 2009 Masters (67 to Tiger’s 68) and the final round of the 2010 BMW Championship (67 to Tiger’s 70). But he’d never paired with him on Sunday at Pebble Beach, much less storming from behind to win and with the added twist of Tiger trying so hard to get that elusive, first victory in 28 months on the PGA Tour.
Never when paired with Tiger had Lefty crafted one of the great rounds of his career – an utter masterpiece of golf shots, temperament and belief.
And let’s be honest. For the most part, the last 15 years, Tiger has stolen Phil’s lunch money. He’s up 14 to four in majors, and before Sunday, 71 to 39 in PGA Tour wins. That Phil now has 40 is a nice round number, but he’s still 31 behind Tiger.
So for Phil to hammer Tiger by 11 strokes and kiss the crystal in front of Carmel Bay and Clint Eastwood … there is no shortage of analogies that people will use to describe the scene for a good long time.
Phil said after the round that Tiger brings out his best, that he focuses more when he plays with Tiger and is less mentally lazy. This is notable, since the knock on Phil for those many years was that he was a mental midget, that he could never out-grind Tiger. Tiger was the guy who was locked in on every swing, while Phil was the space cadet whose otherworldly talent only came in fits and starts.
Imagine, then, how stunning it was to see Tiger, not Phil, miss five putts inside five feet on Sunday. How stunning it was to see Tiger rack together a hat trick of bogeys on Nos. 7, 8 and 9 at Pebble Beach. You almost thought a helicopter should chopper him off the green and over to Salinas General Hospital. Stat!
How stunning it was to see Tiger miss a short putt on the 72nd hole and whiff on a top-10 finish when the outcome was decided, inducing one of those embarrassing “oooh” sounds from the gallery. How stunning it was to see Tiger dropping his club after an errant tee shot on No. 10.
As Tiger dropped his club, the cameras caught Phil on the tee box watching while quietly, stoically gnawing on a banana. Oh, to pay for his thoughts at that moment.
And then there were the dagger putts from Phil, the absolute spine-crushers he produced at the right times. First, on No. 12, Tiger produced his only flash of momentum, holing out from the greenside bunker for a birdie. His game face and fierce low-five with amateur partner Tony Romo showed how much Tiger felt energy turning his way.
That is, until Phil rolled home an impossible dream of a putt – a 30-foot breaker to save par and keep Tiger four shots back. His face, too, told a tale.
“Look at the gritted teeth!” said CBS announcer Jim Nantz.
For good measure, Phil added a par-saving bomb on No. 15, the equivalent of a moonwalk over Tiger’s grave. Lefty said his putting hasn’t felt this good in years, that he doesn’t even worry about mechanics now. He just sees his lines and feels confident.
And there’s another thought to chew on: What if Phil Mickelson starts putting? Tiger, bar the door.
But there’s the rub: Heading into Pebble, Lefty’s year was lousy. He had no top 10s, missed a cut at Torrey Pines and hadn’t won in 10 months. So to see him arrive in one week – really, one magical day – is enough to remind us that Tiger can do the same, perhaps as soon as Doral or Bay Hill. Or, dare we say, Augusta National.
Lefty granted as much. He said the fact that Tiger has eliminated the hook from his game speaks volumes, that Tiger is on the verge of great play for 72 holes. Phil said he used to count on Tiger snapping a tee shot, but that hole in Tiger’s game is gone under new swing coach Sean Foley.
All well and good, and it’s advisable to take Lefty’s assessment of Tiger seriously. After all, he’s now been seriously in the hunt in his first two starts of 2012. His theme song may as well be the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”
And yet … it’s also possible that Tiger’s Sunday wobbles of late are having a lasting mental impact. The putts, once so sure, aren’t sure anymore. And when it’s not Phil Mickelson shooting 64 at Pebble, there are the Bob Rocks of the world outdueling him in the Middle East. Nick Faldo said he felt Tiger was beaten more mentally than physically, that Phil “bruised” Tiger. Used to be, when Tiger arrived on the first tee, a plane may as well have flown overhead trailing a banner that read: “YOU ARE MENTALLY BEATEN ALREADY.” Now, that same plane might carry the banner: “TIGER’S NOT REALLY THAT CONFIDENT IN HIS PUTTER … SO IT’S ANYBODY’S BALLGAME.”
In summary, it was a dream day for those of us who traffic in overstatement and drawing conclusions. Of course, life is more gray than black and white, and many more nuances exist to the Phil/Tiger dynamic than a simple 64-to-75 scorecard.
Then again, sometimes when Phil shoots 64 and Tiger shoots 75, it matters. Especially on a Sunday … at Pebble Beach … in the same pairing.
Scribes and pundits, continue pontificating.
72-70-73-74 – 3-under 289, Jessica Korda, champion (in six-person playoff), LPGA Women’s Australian Open, Royal Melbourne GC, Melbourne, Australia
So you’re watching the Women’s Aussie Open, and you’re noticing this striking American woman just two weeks shy of her 19th birthday, and you’re thinking you’ve heard that last name somewhere before … Korda … Korda …
Boom! Not only did you figure out that Jessica Korda is the daughter of former Czech tennis star Petr Korda, you now possess the knowledge of one of sports’ great random trivia questions: Which father-daughter tandem is the only one to win Australian Opens in different sports?
Yes, Petr Korda won the 1998 Australian Open and 14 years later, daughter Jessica birdied the second playoff hole to stave off a pack of contenders at Royal Melbourne.
All of a sudden, Yani Tseng looks old.
Here comes the next generation of teenage sensations, and the first to strike gold in 2012 is the daughter of a tennis star who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and now raises her in Florida, often on the golf bag throughout her youth career.
As Jessica noted in her Golf Channel interview afterward, however, this Australian Open doesn’t count as a major, whereas her father’s did. She laughed about it but seemed intent on evening the score somewhere down the road. Must be in the DNA.
Is there anything more inevitable than the early collapse of the unlikely 54-hole leader?
Whether it’s Dustin Johnson at the 2010 U.S. Open (en route to shooting 82), Nick Watney at the 2010 PGA Championship (en route to shooting 81) or Spencer Levin at the 2012 Phoenix Open (en route to shooting 75), the list goes on. Players who have never won an event and find themselves in the final group may as well start their day with a breakfast of gasoline and matches.
Cue Charlie Wi at Pebble Beach.
This isn’t Wi’s first rodeo. The guy is 40 and has won seven times around the world. But never on the PGA Tour, and never forced to close the deal with Tiger “Hi, Charlie, I’m Right In Front of You” Woods and Phil “I’m Right In Front of You, Too” Mickelson in the group right ahead of him.
Wi didn’t waste any time validating everyone’s doubts and suspicions.
He four-putted the first hole for double bogey. Worse, three of the putts were from five feet or closer. In the broadcast booth on The Golf Channel, Nick Faldo threw in the towel for Wi: “He’s done. He’s ruined on the first green.”
Other than that, Mr. Wi, how did the first hole play?
Immediately, the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was an all-skate.
Wi did well to bounce back, eventually, and finish alone in second after a 72. In some ways, Wi did what he had to do. He shot even-par and made somebody come get him. Unfortunately for Wi, Lefty was up to the task.
In an ideal world, Wi would shoot 70, get to 17-under, and really make someone come and get him.
So, let’s go back out to that first green, have Wi lay two, let him think of the beauty of a two-putt par and … give that man a mulligan!
“I do believe, for the first time in his career, Tiger Woods was intimidated today.” – Brandel Chamblee, The Golf Channel.
And it doesn’t get much more stark than that.
The West coast swing continues its run of great golf courses with Riviera C.C., in the tony enclave of Pacific Palisades on the west side of Los Angeles.
Don’t look for a Tiger-Phil reunion. That won’t happen until Doral, if at all. Tiger treats Riviera like something on the bottom of his shoe. He has never won there and has stayed away for much of his career.
Phil, however, not only plays Riviera every year, but also he reminds us of his multi-millionaire status by commuting from San Diego by private jet daily. Now that’s living.
And have you seen the traffic on the 405 lately? Hey, Phil, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. After his historic triumph at Pebble Beach, Phil can do plenty of flaunting.
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