Tiger or Lefty?
For the better part of two decades, that's been the big question going into every golf season. Despite the infusion of young talent like Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer and a long list of any-given-Sunday guys, the narrative entering each season seems to revolve around whether Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson will be the man to beat.
Folks are once again talking about Tiger and Lefty, although for very different reasons this season. Only two weeks into the 2015 PGA Tour and both have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Both have yet to make a cut, giving them the weekends off to lick their wounds and try to figure out what's gone wrong with their mental games.
There's a lot of head-scratching surrounding these supposed scratch golfers, who have played more like Average Joes so far this season. After declaring himself healthy and getting a new swing coach in the offseason, Tiger looked like a high-handicapper who hadn't picked up his clubs all winter at the Phoenix Open in scrambling to an 82, the worst round of his roller-coaster career. He withdrew with a back injury the next week at Torrey Pines, a course he usually owns, and his immediate status is uncertain.
“It tightened up during the suspensions and it never loosened back up again,” Woods said after pulling out of the Farmers Insurance Open only 11 holes into the tournament and introducing the phrase “activate my glutes” into the golf vernacular. “It just got progressively tighter. … It's frustrating that it started shutting down like that.”
Although Mickelson continues to battle arthritis, his frustration has been less physical and more mental. He missed the cut at the Phoenix Open and the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament he and Woods have combined to win 10 times. Mickelson three-putted five times at Torrey Pines and seems to have lost his magic touch on the greens. After suffering through his worst season in more than a decade in 2014, the 44-year-old may be on the down slope of his illustrious career.
“It was one of the worst putting performances and the first few weeks really have been the same way and you simply can't compete at this level putting like that,” a perplexed Mickelson told the media after missing back-to-back cuts for the first time since 2002. “I look up and the ball's not going in the hole. I don't know how else to say it.”
The golf world shares in his frustration. Tiger and Phil have combined to win 121 tournaments and 19 majors, dominating the spotlight in a sport that’s popularity ebbs and flows with the changing fortunes of the dynamic duo. Fresh faces have come and gone during their 20-year “era” but none have surpassed the star power of the two friendly rivals.
The big question isn’t whether they will continue to occupy headlines and compete for titles, but rather which one will make the biggest splash. Despite their growing years, fading health and slipping mental games, Woods and Mickelson are still two of the toughest competitors to ever swing a club and they will be back. Don’t be surprised to see both of their names on a leader board before year’s end.
Until then, Tiger’s season is up in the air, and a successful season is literally riding on his back. If he can get healthy in time for The Masters, he could very well be a factor for his 15th major. But if the injury lingers as it has in his six recent withdrawals, it looks to be another long one for Woods.
But Mickelson’s path back to the front of the pack seems more foreseeable for the immediate future. If Phil can recapture his mojo with the putter, he could quickly climb back into contention for tournament, especially majors, where his experience can make a big difference. But even if both should struggle again this season, it’s a safe bet we will still be talking about them in 2016.