By Seth Kerr
GolfWRX Staff Writer
In 2006, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson won three of four major championships. Since then, they have won a total of three majors and had four total second place finishes. Interestingly, Phil has finished in second place four times to Tiger while Tiger has finished in second five times to Phil. But they have never finished in second place when the other won a major.
Part of that may be due to their competitive nature. They aren’t friends and have never pretended to be.
For years, they were our generation’s Jack and Arnie. Tiger was Jack, winning in dominating fashion and taking no prisoners. Phil was just like Arnie; not quite as dominant but we rooted harder for him. He was more of a “man of the people” than Tiger.
From 2004-2006, Phil won two green jackets and one PGA Championship, and he should have won aU.S. Open if not for his bone headed drive on the 72nd hole in 2006. It looked like there was only more to come with Phil winning eight times on tour from 2007-2009. But after his Masters win in 2010, he hit a wall.
Tiger was even more dominant in his prime. He won four majors from 2004-2006 and added two more in 2007-2008. From 2007-2009, Tiger won an incredible 17 times on Tour. In 2009, Tiger had a scoring average of 68.40 in the final round of tournaments, which was almost a shot better than his average of 69.25 for rounds before the cut that year. But after 2009, he failed to win for two years and won less than $1 million in 2011 for the first time since turning pro in 1996. While Tiger has shown steady improvement since then, he still isn’t close to where he was.
In 2012, Tiger had a scoring average of 69.24 for rounds before the cut, ranking him second behind Jason Duffner. However, Tiger’s Round 4 scoring average was more than a full stroke worse at 70.40 and his late fourth round scoring average was a mediocre 71.00, which tied him with the likes of Kevin Kisner, Bobby Gates, Gavin Coles, and Scott Dunlap. Can you picture those guys playing with Tiger on Sunday? Me neither.
There is no question Tiger had a good year in 2012, but he did not have a Tiger year. That’s why the player of the year trophy will go to Rory McIlroy in 2012, not El Tigre. Tiger isn’t driven by wins at Bay Hill, The Memorial or the AT&T National. He plays to win majors, and this year he wilted like an old, dried up flower in all four majors.
He finished in a distant 40th place at Augusta. He had a chance to win the British on the final day, but he fell out of contention with a 73. He also faded on the weekend again at the U.S. Open closing with 75-73. And Rory McIroy beat Tiger by a mind numbing 11 stokes at the PGA Championship.
Sadly for Tiger, that wasn’t his only 11 stroke beat down. His first came courtesy of Phil in the final round at Pebble Beach.
Think about what we know about Tiger and then think about any golfer beating him by 11 strokes in the final round of a tournament he had a chance to win. Would that have every happened from 2000-2009? Not a chance.
Then at the Ryder Cup, Tiger played so poorly he apologized to the Ryder Cup rookies for letting them down. But Phil was even worse this year.
He had a pedestrian scoring average before the cut of 70.62. He didn’t get any better in the final round, averaging a paltry 70.94. That was only good enough for 83rd in the rankings.
Remember, only the top 70 players and ties make the cut.
Phil played very few quality tournaments other than his dominant performance in the final round at Pebble Beach.
It looked like the start of a great year heading into the Masters. Instead, he shot himself in the foot early in the final round of the Masters and faded from contention. He missed the cut at the British Open and did no better than middle of the pack at either the U.S. Open or PGA Championship. While he showed some improvement at the Ryder Cup, there are real questions how much that had to do with him or getting caught up in the Keegan Bradley wave.
Of course, Phil had his own moments he may wish to take back from the Ryder Cup, whether it was telling Davis Love he didn’t want to play Saturday afternoon or smiling and giving Justin Rose a thumbs up as Rose stormed back to beat him in singles on Sunday.
The talent on tour is now younger, stronger and more invested than when Phil and Tiger joined the Tour. These days there are more short game gurus, personal trainers, nutritionists and anyone else you can imagine traveling with players.
No longer is Tiger Woods the peak physical athlete on Tour. He and Phil don’t intimidate anyone with their length. In fact, there are a number of players who bomb it past both of them off the tee.
Players embrace the chance to bring down the two biggest names in golf. They want to play in the final group and beat them. Tiger used to have a couple stroke advantage just by teeing off in the same group. Players used to collapse quicker than a cheap tent when Tiger was moving up leader boards, but lately he has been the one folding in pressure situations. The top players don’t quiver when they play Tiger and Phil anymore. Now they want a piece of them. They’ve seen the blood in the water and are circling.
But perhaps more troubling than the number of golfers joining the pack to defeat Tiger and Phil is their struggles with their own games. So where do Tiger and Phil fit on Tour going forward?
It is still uncertain whether Tiger’s swing changes with Sean Foley will stand up to the pressure of the final round of major championship golf. Will another year under Foley make him better, or just put more wear and tear on his body?
Tiger is an old 37. He has struggled frequently in recent years with injuries. He’s undergone multiple knee surgeries and still limped through certain rounds this year. You also wonder about his mental strength with his personal life becoming so public. His cheating scandal and injuries seemed to zap his invincibility. There is plenty of evidence to show he can get it back, but does he want to?
He struggled when he switched to Hank Haney and then went on one of the most dominant streaks the game has ever seen. But his prior swing changes didn’t come with being a single father and a punch line for public jokes. And he has already admitted he doesn’t spend as much time practicing as his used to due to his responsibilities as a father.
Phil, 42, has had his own swing and injury issues. He famously said at the beginning of the year, “My swing is what it is. My chipping is what it is, and so is my putting. I’m done making changes to strokes. I’m done trying different putters.”
But later in the year, Phil changed his stroke by changing to the claw putting style. Not to mention, he can still hit some of the most shockingly wayward shots at the most inopportune times. The problem is, he doesn’t get it back in play and up and down like he did before.
He has psoriatic arthritis, which limits some of his practice time, not to mention the battles he and his family went through as his wife and mother both battled cancer. Because of that, Phil has taken more time off from playing and practicing. He has no problem missing tournaments that get in the way of family vacations as he did this year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.
While it is admirable to want to spend more time with your family, it doesn’t really make for great golf. And now Phil has extended himself further as partial owner of the San Diego Padres. So how much does Phil really want to be the best on a week-to-week basis?
You get the feeling, for Phil, tournaments are his practice for the majors. You don’t see Phil fretting much over the weekly tournaments. He seems to worry about them as much as he does his well-known Tuesday foursome gambling matches during practice rounds. He may need to fret a little more in 2013; having had only seven top 10 finishes out of 22 tournaments in 2012.
Tiger, and to a lesser extent Phil, used to be able to plan the year and gear their games around the four majors. Now, there are players who have the same skill level and play more often. No longer is Tiger or Phil’s best a guaranteed victory.
And it isn’t likely either player is going to devote the time they did in their youth to reach the top. They can’t. They don’t have the time or the health.
The problem is, golfers don’t usually improve at 37 or 42. In fact, touch seems to leave with age and Tiger and Phil have both relied on their touch around the greens to save strokes.
But maybe this is the year they both go back to fighting for the top spot on leader boards. Or maybe they never win another major, and this is the beginning of seeing two of the games greats fade. We should all start preparing ourselves for that time. Because neither is going to continue to play to finish in the middle of the pack. Both have too much pride, money and other interests to stick around.
Soon enough, they will know how Greg Norman and Nick Faldo felt.