PINEHURST, N.C. – Tiger Woods hasn’t won a major title since 2008. By the end of this week’s U.S. Open, he will have gone 24 majors without a victory.
If recent history is prelude, Woods’ absence at Pinehurst No. 2 this week will cause a dip in television ratings, proof that casual golf fans have concluded that Woods is the most interesting golfer in the world even when he’s not playing well, or often, or at all.
They are entitled to be wrong, in much the same way that channel- flippers are entitled to waste their time watching the self-promoting, play-acting rednecks on “Duck Dynasty.”
Phil Mickelson is more interesting than Woods in every category of life other than accumulated major titles.
Woods became a dominant golfer, portrayed himself as relentlessly boring, then succumbed to injuries and scandal. His achievements were interesting. His background was interesting. He himself turned out to be a drone pointed in the wrong direction.
If Woods’ life is the back page of a tabloid, Mickelson’s is the novel you can’t put down.
Nothing Mickelson does is predictable.
Name another golfer who, after the first round of a prominent golf tournament, had FBI agents waiting to question him about alleged insider trading. That happened to Phil a few weeks ago at the Memorial. He’s not only trying to beat Charles Howell III, he’s trying to become Thurston Howell III.
Name another golfer who would change his putter grip two days before competing in the only major he hasn’t won. Phil did, deciding on Tuesday to go with the “claw” grip.
Name another golfer who has played in majors using two drivers, or has invented his own — his “Phrankenwood” 2-wood.
Name another golfer who is so despised within the game for alleged phoniness, but who connects so eagerly with galleries, signs so many autographs and has never displayed anything but loyalty to his wife and longtime caddie.
Name another golfer with five major titles who is known not for control or technique, but recklessness. Mickelson might be the greatest golfer in history known for arguing with his caddie when his caddie tells him to do something sensible, and whose swing contains so many inappropriately moving parts.
And here’s Mickelson’s career in one range bucket: Name another golfer who has won five major titles while being defined by his losses.
Only five players have completed the modern career grand slam: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player. Bobby Jones won it when the fourth major was the U.S. Amateur, not the PGA Championship.
Mickelson is one of 11 golfers who has won three of the four majors. The only major that has eluded him is the U.S. Open.
Isn’t the quest to quell demons more interesting than robotic dominance?
Mickelson stood on the 18th tee Sunday at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006 needing only a par to win his first major. He reached for his driver and hit a hospitality tent. After his double bogey, he said, “I am such an idiot.”
Isn’t Mickelson’s bared soul preferable to Tiger’s clenched teeth?
Mickelson has finished second a record six times at the U.S. Open. The first time he finished second was in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2. He led by a shot with three holes remaining. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, wore a beeper so he could leave if his pregnant wife alerted him that she was en route to the hospital.
Payne Stewart rallied to win, then grabbed Mickelson’s face and told him, “You’re going to be a great father.” Four months later, Stewart died in a plane crash.
This week Mickelson returns to Pinehurst, and to heighten the drama, he’s a mess. He’s had physical ailments and putting woes and hasn’t finished in the top 10 all year.
Now he’s trying to do something as improbable as skipping a fairway wood off a lake — something he’s tried in competition. He’s trying to fix his game while at the U.S. Open, which prides itself on being golf’s sternest test of patience.
“I’ve done some crazy stuff,” Mickelson said. “One of the dumbest things I’ve done, which actually never came back to bite me, was in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. I changed irons after the first round, to different lofts …
“But you know you’ve got to take some risks sometimes. I’ve won majors with two drivers, with one driver, and with no drivers. I’ve also lost some tournaments because of this. I’m fine with dealing with my own bad decisions.”
Tiger remains the greatest golfer of his generation.
I’d rather watch the guy who could either make history, or call himself an idiot.