PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Here they are again, back at the top of the world rankings.
Tiger Woods, No. 1.
Phil Mickelson, No. 2.
Wouldn’t it be something if they went out in the final pairing of the PGA Championship on Sunday, dueling head-to-head with a major title on the line, still the guys to beat after all these years?
Mickelson would certainly relish the challenge.
“I’ve always been a competitive person,” Lefty said Tuesday, coming in from a practice round at Oak Hill. “I’m as motivated as ever to compete and to play and get the best golf out of me, to hopefully play against Tiger when he’s playing his best. That would ultimately be the goal — I can play as well as I can at the same time he’s doing the same.
“I would love that opportunity.”
Both players are on top of their games entering the final major of the year, which starts today.
Woods is coming off a seven-stroke win at the Bridgestone, his PGA Tour-leading fifth victory of the year.
Less than three weeks ago, Mickelson won the British Open with a dazzling final round at Muirfield.
While Woods is mired in the longest major drought of his career — more than five years — he’s clearly bounced back from personal woes, a series of injuries, and major changes in his swing.
“I feel like my game’s pretty good,” Woods said.
Mickelson is playing with similar confidence, especially after claiming the claret jug.
“I’m more motivated than ever to work hard to succeed, because I can taste some of my best golf coming out,” he said. “I can feel it.”
Woods and Mickelson have never been especially close off the course, that sense of underlying animosity only adding to their rivalry.
Also, it was a one-sided affair for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Woods piled up major titles with staggering regularity while Mickelson developed a reputation as the best player without one.
But things began to heat up in 2004 when Lefty finally broke through to win the Masters. That began a three-year stretch where Woods and Mickelson combined to win six of the 12 major titles.
In 2005, Woods won the Masters and the British Open, while Mickelson closed the year with a victory in the PGA Championship. In 2006, Mickelson earned another green jacket (and should’ve won the U.S. Open, if not for an epic blunder on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot), while Woods took the PGA.
Things cooled a bit in recent years, as Woods went through his well-documented problems and Mickelson endured a six-year span with only one major title — the 2010 Masters. With Lefty moving into his 40s, Woods struggling to get his game and his life back in order, and a long string of first-time major champions stealing the spotlight, it looked as though the rivalry was fading.
Not so fast.
While Woods hasn’t won a major title since his one-legged performance at the 2008 U.S. Open, he’s reclaimed his top spot in the world rankings with more PGA Tour victories (eight) than anyone over the last two years. He’s also been a consistent contender in the biggest events and it seems just a matter of time before he claims major No. 15.
Mickelson has addressed two of the biggest flaws in his game, a shaky putting touch and wayward shots off the tee — so much so, that he now considers them to be strengths.
In June, there was another close-but-no-cigar call in the U.S. Open, where he was runner-up for a record sixth time. Then, he conquered Muirfield with one of the greatest clutch rounds in major championship history, a 5-under 66 on a course that was about as hard as a paved road.
The 43-year-old Mickelson can sense another golden era in his career about to unfold, even though he’s at an age when most players are beginning their slow, steady spiral toward the senior tour.
“I feel as though I started to play my best golf in the last four, five, six months,” he said. “I feel like now the major championships are possibly the easiest ones for me to be in contention and maybe even win, because of those weaknesses becoming strengths.”
Mickelson is even more confident in his game when he goes against Woods.
“He brings out the best golf in me,” Lefty said. “He’s a great motivator for me. He’s helped me work hard. He’s helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level, year in and year out.”
Woods isn’t quite as exuberant when the subject turns to Mickelson.
When asked about their relationship Tuesday, Woods meandered through a drawn-out answer that didn’t say much about anything until he summed up tersely, “It’s been a lot of fun.”
If Woods should go through another year without a major title, he doesn’t think it diminishes what he’s done in 2013 — or might still do, considering the Tour playoff and championship are still to come.
Some might perceive that Woods has lowered his standards just a bit. After all, the four majors have always been the focal point of his season, with Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 titles the end game he was striving to reach. He’s been stuck on 14 for a while, and each passing year makes it a little more likely that he won’t beat the Golden Bear’s mark.
“I think it’s been a great year so far for me,” Woods said. “Winning five times, and you look at the quality of tournaments I’ve won, a Players and two World Golf Championships in there, that’s pretty good.”
You know what would be even better?
Woods vs. Mickelson on Sunday, with a major title on the line.