Phil Mickelson, who ended Tiger Woods's six-tournament PGA Tour
winning streak last week, is a modern-day example of the man
who, swallowed whole by a dangerous mammal, escapes to resume
his life. The Old Testament version is Jonah and the Whale, but
on Sunday at the Buick Invitational it was Lefty and the Tiger.
First there was the big gulp: Woods sinking a birdie putt on the
13th green at the Torrey Pines South Course to tie Mickelson for
the tournament lead, having made up a deficit of seven strokes
in just six holes. Then there was the unexpected regurgitation:
Mickelson making birdie from the trees on the same hole, then
making three more birdies down the stretch for a four-shot
victory over Woods and Shigeki Maruyama, a smiling bystander.
"I was just toying with him," Mickelson joked. Well, sure, just
like Matt Gogel toyed with Tiger six days before at Pebble
Beach, or the way Ernie Els (wins number 2 and 5 for Woods),
Davis Love III (number 3) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (number 4)
toyed with Tiger during his historic run. This time, though, the
catnip jumped up and killed the cat. Mickelson's win, the 14th
of his nine-year Tour career, proved that Woods can't always win
without his A game. More important, it preserved, perhaps for
all time, Byron Nelson's record of 11 straight wins, set in 1945.
It was the streak, after all, that had golf fans everywhere
longing to be on the cliffs of Torrey Pines, a two-course muni
just up the shore from the pricey boutiques of La Jolla, Calif.
By extending his streak on Monday, Feb. 7, at the rain-delayed
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Tiger gave this Buick a
thousand-volt jump-start. Within hours of the dramatic finish at
Pebble, the San Diego tournament was flooded with hundreds of
media credential requests: a camera crew from the BBC;
correspondents from The Christian Science Monitor and L'Equipe
of France; a team of student journalists from the Feaster-Edison
Charter School of Chula Vista, Calif. The most brazen came from
a Beverly Hills talent agent seeking press passes for actors
Dondre T. Whitfield and Kelly Perine, who were in San Diego
filming Invasion Y2K for Paramount. "They already have tickets,"
wrote the agent in a fax. "We're just trying to help them gain
greater access to the action." Press coordinator Rick Schloss,
who felt as if he were producing Invasion of the Media Hordes,
banned the actors, welcomed the Brits, the French and the
Christian Scientists, and even found room--on pro-am Wednesday
only--for the Chula Vista kids. "This," he said, "is the biggest
unplanned planned sporting event in the history of San Diego."
There was pageantry. When Woods, the defending champ, began his
first round on the 10th tee of Torrey Pines North, spectators
lined the fairway three deep all the way to the green. "That's
the first time I've seen that on a Thursday," said a Tour
official. For the rest of the tournament, cameramen with tripods
raced to set up their equipment before Tiger putted.
Photographers jockeyed for position. Fans took turns gawking
through periscopes. It would have surprised no one if the
MetLife blimp had descended to an altitude of 20 feet and
followed Woods to the door of a porta-potty.
Tiger's response to the hoopla was to barely acknowledge it.
"I've dealt with it before," he said. Still, it's hard to ignore
a dozen boom mikes thrust into your face. Last Wednesday, when
Tiger walked straight to the players' lunchroom after a press
conference, a "we take you live to Torrey Pines" follow-up on it
was already on TV. "They're blowing this thing way out of
proportion," Woods said.
Were they, though? Sure, the streak was an artificial construct.
Woods had skipped more Tour events than he had played in since
winning the NEC Invitational last August, and he did not win the
two unofficial tournaments he entered late last year. But if it
was a streak unlike Nelson's--the great man won his 11 tournaments
all in the same season, and he played in almost every event on
the schedule--in some ways it was a streak that surpassed Lord
Byron's. In 1945 America was at war, and pro golf was a
home-front diversion played before small crowds for small purses.
Today America is at play, and the life-and-death attention once
given to generals and statesmen goes to sportsmen. To dominate
now, as Woods has done, is Promethean or, to put it less loftily,
just plain amazing. "He is creating more excitement in the game
of golf, and all the players are beneficiaries," said Mickelson.
"A lot of us are thanking him."
At Torrey Pines, as he had done the week before at Pebble, Tiger
lurked before he leaped. He missed his first four fairways and
greens on the North Course on Thursday and struggled to a
one-under-par 71, six shots worse than Love, the first-round
leader. On Friday, Woods played the easier South Course, the
other track used in the tournament, and made the turn at even
par. It looked as if he might miss only his second cut as a pro.
Then he got serious and torched the back nine with a five-under
31. He was still six shots out, though, this time behind hometown
favorite Mickelson, 1998 Presidents Cup star Maruyama and the pro
in the bucket hat, Kirk Triplett.
The three leaders were given only provisional respect, for they
seemed to be standing barefoot on a rattlesnake. "Let's talk
about Tiger," Triplett joked to reporters after his second-round
64. "That's why I'm here." Maruyama, who shot a 64 of his own on
Friday, was asked if he could stop Tiger. "No chance!" he
answered. Even Notah Begay, who was two strokes ahead of his
former Stanford teammate, said, "I know everybody's looking over
his shoulder, except me. I can feel him."
Sure enough, Woods scooted up the leader board on Saturday with a
67 that could have been a 62. On several occasions he had his arm
cocked for the fist pump, only to have a putt rim out or roll
over the cellophane bridge. "They were burnin' the edge," he
Meanwhile, Mickelson had both his long game and his short game in
sync and was looking like the player who from 1993 to '98 put
together six straight seasons with at least one Tour win. He,
too, shot a 67 and was the leader after three rounds--two better
than Maruyama, three better than Love and six ahead of Woods and
five others. Those with memories for such things noted that the
first win in Tiger's streak--the '99 NEC Invitational--was by a
single stroke over none other than Mickelson, who fired a
final-round 65 to Tiger's cautious 71.
For most of his career Mickelson has been regarded as a good
closer, but last season his scoring average in fourth rounds was
two strokes higher than in the third, and two weeks before the
Buick he had shot a 40 on the final nine and tied for 10th in the
Phoenix Open, which he had led with nine holes to go. "That's a
surefire way to lose," he said at Torrey Pines, acknowledging
that he had played defensively that day. This time Mickelson
vowed to play "intelligent but aggressive golf" and to try to
birdie all the par-5s. "If I do that," he said, "I'll force Tiger
to shoot a ridiculously low round."
It was a good plan, and Mickelson stuck to it on Sunday--for six
holes. When he birdied the par-5 6th, he was three under for the
round, 19 under for the tournament, and seven strokes ahead of
Woods. But then Mickelson made a double bogey at the 7th, a
disappointing par at the par-5 9th and another double bogey on
the par-3 11th, where he needed two chips and two putts. When
Tiger made his third birdie in five holes, at the par-5 13th, the
two were tied at 15 under. Like Jonah, the man they call Lefty
was in the belly of the beast. "I wasn't thrilled about it,"
It was a career-defining collapse, or could have been, but
Mickelson, the Tour's most obnoxiously happy family man, leaned
over the gallery ropes; kissed his wife, Amy, and baby daughter,
Amanda; and went back to work. On the 13th, after pushing his
drive and laying up, Mickelson dropped a smooth nine-iron three
feet from the hole and made the putt to retake the lead. A hole
later he floated a gentle wedge to five feet and made another
Woods had three-putted the 14th. When he had to scramble for par
on the 15th--it was on the 15th at Pebble Beach, remember, that he
stunned Gogel by holing a shot from the fairway--Woods realized
that no miracles were left in his bag. "To even be under par, as
bad as I was hitting it today, was kind of a miracle," Woods
said. He finished bogey-par-birdie for a final-round 68, a
four-round total of 274, a second-place tie with Maruyama and a
warm ovation from the huge gallery at the 18th green.
Mickelson got more: a first-prize check for $540,000, the
satisfaction of beating Woods head-to-head and a permanent place
in golf history as the man who stopped Tiger's streak. "I knew
this year was going to be great," said a glowing Amy Mickelson,
whose difficult pregnancy made '99 a trial for herself and her
husband. "It's not about me now; it's back to being about him.
Last year he would play, not practice and come home and hold my
hair back while I threw up 30 times."
At the risk of overusing the alimentary analogy, Mickelson left
La Jolla a satisfied man, and Woods left with an empty feeling.
The moral--with apologies to Fractured Fairy Tales--is what Jonah
taught the whale: You can't keep a good man down.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Short work Mickelson rebounded from a pair of double bogeys to beat Woods by four strokes.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER "To even be under par, as bad as I was hitting it today, was kind of a miracle," Woods said after his 68 on Sunday.