For Phil Mickelson, this week’s U.S. Open is a home game.
The only problem?
It’s also a home game for Tiger Woods.
The 2008 U.S. Open starts Thursday at Torrey Pines in San Diego and it figures to offer Mickelson a great chance to win the nation’s golf championship, considering he played the course 500 or so times growing up. Woods, meanwhile, has owned Torrey Pines as a professional and he comes into this week’s tournament having won the last four events there as part of the PGA TOUR’s annual schedule.
In a much-talked about decision by the United States Golf Association (USGA), Mickelson and Woods have been paired together for the first two rounds of the Open. That’s never happened before in their respective pro careers. It’s a curious decision for a number of reasons. First, it’s no secret that Phil and Tiger aren’t camping buddies. Second, conventional wisdom would say put the two of them at opposite ends of the tee-time sheet to maximize TV exposure and minimize on-course spectator traffic. Last – and there’s some conspiracy theory stuff sprinkled in here – there are people out there in the golf world who feel it’s a slight to Woods to pair him with two players (Mickelson and Adam Scott) who come into the tournament on the heels of winning an event on TOUR in the last month or so while Tiger hasn’t played since April due to knee surgery. Some are hinting that the pairing was given to Tiger to reprimand him for his comments at last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont CC when he called the greens “sadistic” after round two. “Wanna bash our greens? We’ll stick you with the guy you like the least, how’s that?” I can’t imagine that’s the thinking the USGA used, but golf tournament organizers can do some funny things to get their message across. Just ask Gary McCord.
So, they’ll arrive together on Thursday morning, Woods and Mickelson, ready to tackle what promises to be one of the toughest courses the USGA has ever produced.
They’ll take the same path to the first tee tomorrow, but they certainly didn’t travel the same roads to get there.
Mickelson was the athlete prodigy in a wealthy San Diego family. He was the kid who played baseball, basketball, tennis and golf with equal ability. His teams always won in little league. He always had the cute girls staring at him in high school. He drove a Mercedes when he was 16. It wasn’t a hand-me-down from his folks. He was given the car for his 16th birthday. “Whatever Phil wants, he gets…”
He made a name for himself as a junior golfer by bouncing from city to city in the summer to play the highly-competitive American Junior Golf Association. He won a lot. He drove the ball farther than every kid in his age group. He shot in the 60′s before anyone else. He was just much better than all the other players.
Mickelson’s family belonged to a very private country club in San Diego and young Phil would play the members for money. Not that he lost much, because he didn’t…but if Mickelson came out on the bad end of a match, Daddy would take care of it. He was, in effect, a money-making professional long before he earned his PGA Tour card in the early 1990′s. When you have a 10-foot putt to win $100 as a 14-year old, that’s as close to being a pro as you can get.
He won a PGA TOUR event as an amateur while attending Arizona State and just four years later, was playing in the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill CC in Rochester, NY. It was supposed to happen that way for Mickelson. “Whatever Phil wants, he gets…”
Tiger Woods was also a golfing product from Southern California, but he grew up in suburban Los Angeles with a mother from Thailand and an American father who fought in Vietnam. They didn’t belong to any kind of exclusive private club. Woods played the various municipal courses in and around L.A. and at age 13, he went 33-for-33 on the L.A. junior golf summer circuit. That’s 33 wins in 33 tournaments. If Phil’s bumper sticker reads, “Whatever Phil wants, he gets…”, Tiger’s reads, “Whatever Tiger gets, he works for…”
While Mickelson flew around the country on American Airlines, stayed at the Hyatt and played some of the nation’s best golf courses as a junior, Woods spent his summers at the public course, slept in his own bed and stared at the Jack Nicklaus poster on his wall.
There’s little doubt which approach produced the better pro golfer.
Mickelson has enjoyed an outstanding career, no doubt. He owns three major titles, has played and excelled on the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup teams and, without question, ranks as the 2nd best player in the world right now. He’s made over $100 million playing golf, more than enough to pay back his mom and dad for that Mercedes and all of those junior golf tournament fees they pre-funded for him as a youngster.
Woods has dominated the game since turning pro in 1996. He’s either stymied or ended a bunch of promising careers with his overwhelming success. David Duval is a victim of the Tiger Woods era. So is Ernie Els. So is Sergio Garcia. Some would say Mickelson’s career record is blemished by the number of times he’s lost to Tiger in major championship encounters. Woods has become Golf in America. Some don’t like it, but it’s true. TV ratings go down when he doesn’t play and they spike when he does. Ticket sales drop when he’s not in an event and attendance records are set when he plays. If Nathan Green says, “the greens are no good here”, people say, “Who is Nathan Green?”. When Woods says ANYTHING, people say, “Did you hear what Tiger said today?”.
The Mickelson-Woods relationship took a turn for the worse in 2004 at the Ryder Cup in suburban Detroit. Captain Hal Sutton – against all conventional thinking – paired the two of them together in the alternate shot competition. On the final hole, Mickelson hit a drive that barely stayed on the golf course. It stopped against a fence, Woods had no play to the green, and they lost their match. Normally, players understand that bad shots happen and often occur at the worst possible time. In this case, though, Mickelson had drawn the ire of his teammates by switching equipment the week of the event at Oakland Hills CC and his 10-handicap drive at #18 reinforced the notion by most of the players that making an equipment change the week of the Ryder Cup was just a bad move. When questioned about it, Mickelson merely said: “The deal was right and this was the week they wanted me to make the switch.” The new equipment sponsor, Callaway, wanted to take advantage of the heightened coverage provided by the Ryder Cup and insisted Mickelson use their clubs that week. They didn’t expect he’d blow his driver all over the map and cause more harm than good, obviously. Woods didn’t comment on the change when asked about it at the Ryder Cup, saying, “none of us played well enough to win…”, but later on that year at a PGA Tour dinner, he said, “The game is hard enough to play well without putting new equipment in your hands the day before the biggest round of the year…” – an obvious jab at Mickelson’s decision to put money before country back in September at the Ryder Cup.
Mickelson grew up around money and has always surrounded himself with money making opportunities. He’s an unabashed gambler (he won money on the Ravens winning the Super Bowl in 2000) and is routinely involved in practice round matches that work their way up to $5,000 per-man by the time the last putt is holed at #18.
Woods used to play the seniors for a quarter as a 10-year old in L.A. “First one to make three 10-footers in a row wins 25 cents…” Tiger would say to the old timers. He’d leave the course with a pocket full of change, so the legend goes. Like Phil, Woods isn’t afraid to spend his money, purchasing a $40 million piece of property in Florida and a $28 million yacht. When you make $100 million a year in endorsements, you can afford a luxury or two, right?
So, tomorrow in San Diego, Woods and Mickelson will shake hands on the first tee and go head-to-head for two days in front of the world.
It’s a home game for both of them.
Mickelson grew up on the course.
Woods has won four straight events at Torrey Pines.
Phil gets to see his old friends and bask in the glow of becoming a superstar in the world of golf. He’s the hometown boy made good.
Woods tries to inch closer to Jack’s record of 18 major titles and further cement his role as the game’s most dominant name and face.
They both get what they want this week.
For Phil, it’s a return to the life he started in San Diego.
“Whatever Phil wants, he gets…”
For Tiger, it’s a return to the life he started in Los Angeles.
“Whatever Tiger gets, he works for…”
And, make no mistake about it, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines will be hard work for the winner.