Woods and Mickelson set for a showdown in year’s final Major
Top Americans and great rivals in form as they prepare for the start of the USPGA at Oak Hill
Main contenders: Following their recent respective victories,Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will expect to be in contention at the USPGA this week at Oak Hill. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Theirs is a rivalry which spices up the adrenalin juices. Tiger-Phil. Phil-Tiger. Whichever way you flip it, the two – with contrasting charismatic characteristics – have the capacity to generate box office appeal. And, for a change, it is Tiger Woods who heads into this week’s US PGA championship at Oak Hill seeking to emulate Phil Mickelson.
Woods did many things in claiming an eighth WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title at Akron on Sunday, before jumping into his private jet for the short trip to Rochester, in upstate New York. He tied his career low competitive score of 61 (in the second round); took his career total of wins on the US Tour to 79 titles, just three shy of Sam Snead’s record; won for a fifth time in a season to a record-extending ten times; and won his 18th WGC title, 15 more than Geoff Ogilvy, the second-most successful player.
However, most intriguingly of all, Woods won his final tune-up before a Major. Last month, Mickelson captured the Scottish Open the week before going on to win the British Open at Muirfield, his fifth career Major. Woods, for his part, has won 20 times in his last outing prior to a Major and gone on to win the following Grand Slam event on four occasions.
The last time was in 2007, when he won the PGA after winning at Akron.
No-one can doubt Woods’s form this season is back to his imperious best, at least in regular tournaments and the WGCs. His win in the Bridgestone was his fifth win of the season – coming on the back of his victory in the Farmers Insurance Open (for a seventh time), the WGC-Cadillac championship (for a seventh time), the Players at Sawgrass (for a second time) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill (for an eighth time) – but that form hasn’t transferred itself to the Majors. Not yet, at any rate.
Indeed, in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 wins, Woods has been stuck on 14 career Majors since claiming the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.
His annexation of WGC titles is, quite simply, phenomenal. In the aftermath of his win on Sunday night, Woods remarked: “I think that one thing I’m proud of is obviously how many World Golf Championships I’ve won, but also how many years I’ve won five or more times in a season. I don’t know what the total is, eight or nine?” Ten, actually.
“That’s something I’m very proud of is how many tournaments I’ve been able to win consistently, year in and year out, and then how many World Golf Championships I’ve been able to win . . . . some of the greats, these championships weren’t around when they played, but for my generation they have been. To be able to beat the best players in the world at more than just the Major championships and the players, to have a few more tournaments where we get assembled and to get to go battle against each other, that’s something we all look forward to, and that’s one of the reasons why these World Golf Championships were constituted. So to be able to have won this many, that’s something I’m very proud of.”
Winning at Firestone Country Club and a WGC, for all that it means, isn’t the same as winning a Major. Woods, more than anyone, knows that. Another “W” may have been chalked up on his CV, but it is what happens at Oak Hill this week which will define, more than anything, Woods’s season.
So far, he hasn’t transferred his dominance of regular events to the Majors: he was tied-fourth at the Masters, tied-32nd at the US Open (where he was returning from injury) and tied-sixth at the British Open.
What will this latest win do for him going into the PGA? Does he want it more?
“As far as wanting it more than any other, no. It’s the same. Those are the events that we try and peak for and try and win. There’s four of them a year, and it’s important for me to get some rest come Monday and Tuesday and do some light work . . . Come Thursday I’ve got a great pairing with Keegan (Bradley) and Davis (Love). Basically just try and get a feel for the golf course and how it’s playing. Do I want it any more? No, it’s the same. Each and every Major, I always want them. I’ve been successful 14 times, and hopefully (Oak Hill) will be 15.
Woods actually paid an advance visit last Tuesday to Oak Hill prior to getting to Akron and said “it’s going to be a tough golf course . . . . the rough was already way up when I played it. I think that it’ll be a very, very difficult championship.”
And the prospect of going head-to-head with Mickelson?
As appealing as that may be, Woods remarked: “We’ve had our fair share of head-to-head battles and head-to-head duels. For me it’s been three guys over the course of my career. It’s been Vijay (Singh), Phil and Ernie (Els), and those are the three guys I have bucked heads with not just here in the United States but all over the world . . . it’s been fun.
“Phil and I have gone head-to -head, but we haven’t gone as many times as people might think. I’ve gone against, I think, Ernie and Vijay more often than I have Phil. But when Phil and I have battled, it’s been in big events and we’ve shot some pretty good rounds together and against each other.”
Still, it’s a prospect that adds further spice to this week’s latest Major gathering at Oak Hill.