Woods, Mickelson Prepare For Duel At Oakmont

By Mike Dudurich
Updated: June 10, 2007

PITTSBURGH — Like Ali and Frazier in boxing, the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball and the Steelers and Ravens in football, golf has Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Golf fans have been waiting for the rivalry to blossom into one of the best in sports. And it’s coming to a U.S. Open venue near you.

On the 45th anniversary of the Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus U.S. Open battle at Oakmont Country Club, many anticipate a showdown between the best player in the world and the player who would very much like to be.

“Tiger’s going to hit shots that he’s comfortable with and knows he can hit every time. That’s what makes him so great,” said golfer Jason Gore, a longtime friend.”Tiger knows what he does and what he does very well. If he has to dissect that course (Oakmont) piece by piece, that’s what he’ll do.”

What of the guy fans affectionately call Philly Mick?

“God love him, Phil Mickelson thinks he’s Superman and that’s why people love to watch him play,” said Gore, laughing.

Mistakes? Well, there just aren’t many. For Tiger, at least.

“He’ll let other people make mistakes,” Gore said. “That’s a true sign of a guy who knows what’s he got. With all due respect to Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Palmer, he’s probably going to be the greatest ever. I’m a huge Tiger fan and I know that he’s human just like the rest of us and can be beaten on any week, but we’re watching history here and it’s pretty cool.”

There are several juicy subplots.

Woods, 31, comes to Oakmont with nine victories in his last 13 events. His quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships — and his drive to become the best golfer ever — adds intrigue to this year’s Open.

Additionally, his wife, Elin, is due to deliver the couple’s first child in early July. Woods has made it clear he will head home in his private plane if baby Woods makes an early appearance.

On the flip side, Mickelson has yet to win an Open. He’s endured four second-place finishes, and he has finished fourth once. The San Diego native has had much better luck at the Masters, earning a green jacket in 2004 and 2006.

Mickelson won the PGA Championship in 2005. He also posted three rounds in the 60s on the way to a third-place finish in the 2004 British Open.

Still, it’s always been Tiger, then Phil. Why not Phil, then Tiger? The driver.

After several heartbreaking misses in big moments — most recently on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot — Mickelson decided to make a change.

Despite having an all-star teaching cast of Rick Smith and Dave Pelz, Mickelson wanted to correct the biggest flaw in his game.

He had drivers built for different types of shots. The lefty worked diligently on eliminating the high fade that has tortured him for years. Nothing seemed to make a difference.

So Mickelson, who turns 38 on Saturday of Open week, hired Butch Harmon. Yes, the same Butch Harmon who helped shape Tiger Woods’ swing and career.

“Butch is one of the very best teachers in the world,” Mickelson said. “He’s helped two players (Greg Norman and Woods) rise to No. 1 in the game, and I’m fortunate that he has agreed to spend time working with me on my game, particularly on my driving.”

Mickelson added: “I went to Rick Smith as a friend and asked for his understanding of this decision and he’s been very supportive of it.”

A source of professional angst between the two golfers? Tiger steadfastly avoids the subject.

“Tiger will love this, absolutely love it,” said Harmon, who was Tiger’s guru for four major championship victories. “It’s going to motivate him to get better, and that will be fun to see.”

Woods is now locked in with the renowned teacher Hank Haney. Since 2004, the two have worked on significant swing changes, all of which have catapulted Woods back into the No. 1 spot.

The rest of the PGA Tour — most notably Mickelson — remains in Tiger’s rearview mirror.

Players have been forced to elevate their game in an effort to challenge; manufacturers have redesigned equipment to help golfers gain distance; tournament officials have decided to “Tiger-proof” their layouts.

Woods’ resounding win by a record 12 stokes in the 1997 Masters led to the thinking that a lengthened course might help level the playing field. How else to equalize a guy who has consistently averaged more than 290 yards off the tee?

U.S. Open courses are is set up to demand precision and accuracy. Plenty of nasty rough, narrow fairways and fast greens exact a steep price for wayward shots.

In late 2006, Woods was asked just how difficult Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., was. Woods missed the U.S. Open cut there for the first time.

“Of all the tournaments I’ve ever played, no golf course was harder than Winged Foot,” he said.

One 18-hole round at Oakmont changed that opinion.

“It’s not even close,” Woods said on that Sunday afternoon. “It’s this one. I like it. I can’t recall many golf courses where you don’t see the fairway and green on the same hole. Maybe at St. Andrews, but that’s about it.”

Despite his 57 PGA Tour victories, Woods has won just two Opens — the fewest among his 12 major championships.

Mickelson, on the other hand, started playing on Tour in 1992 and has won 31 times. It took him until 1996 to become a million-dollar-a-year winner, and he had to endure an agonizing, 0-for-47 streak in the majors before winning the Masters in 2004.

And while he knows Woods is the man he’ll have to beat to become No. 1 in the world, he respects what Tiger has done for the game.

“I don’t think I could have imagined the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf, but I sure am a huge benefactor of it and sure am appreciative of it,” Mickelson said. “The purses that we were playing for when I came out on Tour were $1 million to $1.7 million. Doral was the biggest at $1.7 million. Now it’s five to six (million) every week, and we’ve got the World Golf Championships and the FedExCup that are in the sevens, and The Players Championship at nine. So the types of dollars we’re playing for now are unfathomable to me 10 years ago before he came out.”

The purse for this year’s U.S. Open is at least $6.8 million.

Mickelson played in the 1994 Open at Oakmont and finished tied for 47th. He hit only 22 fairways.

“It’s a very difficult golf course and driving is important, hence the move to drive the ball better,” he said.

Woods, even after playing 54 holes at Oakmont in mid-April, had some questions.

“It’s a great test, but has a lot of blind tee and second shots. Overall, I’d say it’s a lot harder than Augusta National,” Woods said. “It’s an old-style course and I kept trying to figure out where the USGA (United States Golf Association) was going to put the pin placements for the U.S. Open in June. I’m still not sure.”

On June 11-17, the top two players in the world will attempt to tame what could easily be the most difficult U.S. Open course. Will Woods decide to keep the driver in the bag? He did on his way to a British Open win a year ago. Staying clear of the 4- to 5-inch rough is key — something that has cost Tiger dearly in Open tournaments.

And what of Phil? His gung-ho, guns blazing, aggressive nature has served him well on some occasions. On other occasions, it’s been his downfall.

“A guy who just tries to bomb out of his mind will be in big trouble,” said Bob Ford, Oakmont’s pro. “You can’t play out of the rough to these greens. On the other hand, a strategic, smart player who putts out of his mind over four days is likely to win this championship.”

Tiger and Phil. Phil and Tiger. Only Oakmont knows the answer.