Lefty not all right

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

LA JOLLA, Calif. – The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in the world of golf never has seemed greater than at Torrey Pines on a sunny Friday afternoon.

At the Buick Invitational, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played on different courses, separated by only a few hundred yards, but they might as well have been playing on different planets.

If Woods was looking to lay down a marker for 2008, he accomplished his objective, smoking his way around the North Course with an action-packed 7-under 65 to put him at 12-under overall, four shots clear of the pack fronted by third alternate Kevin Streelman.

Mickelson was loath to compare himself to Woods at his press conference before the event began and seemed even more reluctant to do so as he stood by the 18th green following his second-round 73 that got him into the weekend at 1-under. He stands 11 shots behind Woods. This week, at least, Mickelson is just a speck in the rearview mirror of golf's leading man.

Fans around the globe long have been clamoring for a fierce head-to-head rivalry between the pair, especially after Lefty captured a major in three straight seasons from 2004 to 2006. They finally got to see an exciting duel last year in Boston and hoped there would be many more to come.

But now Woods has surged forward into an entirely different realm while Mickelson's health issues (respiratory problems) and the rustiness in his game mean that he cannot seriously think about toppling Tiger, at least not in the near future.

It is quite revealing that Mickelson did not mention his rival once by name when speaking to the media Friday. He knows that to contend for titles this year he needs to infuse some spark and edge into his own game rather than become sidetracked by chasing the great one's shadow.

"I will look back and kind of assess where my game is at after Sunday's round, but I am not sharp right now," he admitted. "I didn't get the chance to work on my game too much leading into this event because I wasn't feeling well, but looking at it, I don't think there is one area where it is deficient. All areas aren't quite right yet."

Playing in five consecutive tournaments should help him shake off some of that rustiness. Still, it might not make the slightest difference in their rivalry. Woods is beginning to look like a juggernaut, going low even when his driving is slightly off. He has been talking about the possibility of winning the Grand Slam, and there's no question he has a real shot at it. From the evidence these first two days, it will take a monumental effort for Mickelson and other leading players even to get close to him this year.

If there is any course that could get Mickelson going it should be Torrey Pines, where he played countless rounds during his adolescent days, digesting every nuance of the more formidable South Course.

The redesign of the course six years ago, however, has erased that advantage, and Mickelson did not play like the home team Thursday when he shot a 2-under 70.

Serious improvement will be needed if he is to challenge the next time the PGA Tour stops in La Jolla, for the U.S. Open in June.

Mickelson is expecting a ferociously challenging South Course that week, and he warned that some of the finest players in the world could come unglued.

"It is 7,600 yards at sea level, plus with it being cold and windy, it gets monotonous hitting 4-iron and 3-irons into every hole," he said. "It is hard to make birdies, but it can be done. No holes let you off the hook here."

Woods isn't in any mood to let anyone off the hook, either. If Woods is to be challenged this year, Mickelson, with all his magnificent talent, still would appear to be the leading candidate.

But not this week.

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