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Wilcox: Tiger vs. Phil is a hole-in-one (Jan. 30)

| Thursday, January 30, 2014

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment in a 10-part series discussing the best rivalry in sports. In this installment, Alex Wilcox argues that Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson deserves the top spot. Join the discussion on Twitter by using #BestRivalry.

Allow me to dream, if only for a minute.

For a brief, beautiful moment, I am whisked far away from the snowed-in polar vortex of South Bend to a warm April Sunday in Augusta, Ga. The azaleas are in full bloom, and as the sun sets, a roar erupts from an otherwise tranquil evening as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson walk up to the 18th green at The Masters.

This simple image is what makes this rivalry the best in sports.

Tiger and Phil have been inextricably linked ever since Tiger turned professional in 1996. At that time, Phil already had nine tournament victories under his belt. But Tiger quickly stole the show when he became the youngest player to ever win a major at age 21 when he won the 1997 Masters with a tournament record score of 18-under par.

While Phil was still recognized as a world-class golfer, the emergence of Tiger added a caveat to his distinction: best golfer without a major.

That stigma would dog Phil throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, as Tiger racked up eight major championships, while Phil could only lay claim to a few second-place finishes.

Despite the disparities in majors, America loved each of them. They loved Tiger for his youthful energy, colorfulness and dominance in a sport stereotyped for old, fat white guys. Phil was the lovable loser, the everyday man.

Perhaps the best example of this rivalry is the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Labeled “The People’s Open” since it was the first U.S. Open held at a public golf course, the people’s golfer, Phil Mickelson, won over the crowd and quickly became a fan favorite, even though he finished second once again.

The winner? Tiger Woods, of course.

After watching Tiger win eight majors, including three Masters, Phil finally shed his “second best” stigma when he won his first major at the 2004 Masters. With Tiger and Phil both having major championships under their belt, the best rivalry in the game entered its golden age.

Not to be outdone by his counterpart, Tiger stormed back to reclaim the green jacket as his own, winning the 2005 Masters in a one-hole playoff with Chris DiMarco. As Augusta tradition dictates, the previous year’s champion must bestow the green jacket onto the current champion, resulting in Phil awarding Tiger with his fourth green jacket, lest Phil forgot who he was up against.

If the 2005 Masters was a humbling experience for Phil, the 2006 Masters proved “Lefty” was a force to be reckoned with in major championships. He won the tournament, giving him two Masters titles in three years, and in one of golf’s quintessential moments, Tiger Woods bestowed the green jacket onto Phil Mickelson.

Phil appeared to have everything going for him. After winning the Masters that April, he walked up to the 18th tee box at Winged Foot, leading by a stroke at the 2006 U.S. Open and about to claim his second straight major championship.
He was about to break out; at last this was Phil’s chance! He appeared destined to go on a run not seen since Tiger won four straight majors spanning the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters.

But golf is a cruel game.

When all he needed was a par on the last hole to win, and a bogey to force a playoff, Phil double-bogeyed in one of the most dramatic collapses in golf history, leaving him, once again, second best.

Geoff Ogilvy was the lucky benefactor of Phil’s misfortune, and in some sort of poetic justice, Tiger went on to win the final two majors of the season.

As both golfers fade out of their primes, the legacies of each are left to consider. Tiger will assuredly go down as one of the, if not the, greatest to ever play. Phil, meanwhile, will always be loved by fans, if not the golfing gods. Regardless, their legacies will forever be intertwined. One cannot mention Tiger Woods without Phil Mickelson, just as one cannot mention Phil Mickelson without Tiger Woods.

What makes Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson the best rivalry in sports is actually rather simple: Whenever the two of them are in a tournament, no matter how big or small, there is always the feeling that at any moment, history is about to be made.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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