Phils The Bill Everybody's trying to be Tiger Woods's rival, but by capping his best season ever with a victory at the Tour Championship, Phil Mickelson showed he's the only contender who has what it takes - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Phils The Bill Everybody's trying to be Tiger Woods's rival, but by capping his best season ever with a victory at the Tour Championship, Phil Mickelson showed he's the only contender who has what it takes

Pardon the cliche, but when Phil Mickelson came to Atlanta, he
came to play. First as Disco Man--in a white suit, white shoes
and gold chains--for Halloween trick-or-treating with Disco
Woman (wife Amy) and the Butterfly Princess (15-month-old
daughter Amanda). Then at the Tour Championship, a $5 million
reward for the Tour's top 30 money winners at Bobby Jones's old
track, East Lake Golf Club, where Mickelson looked more like
Tiger Woods than Tiger himself.

Who charged out of the gate on Sunday with four birdies on the
front nine? Who shot the low score (66) on the final day? Who
overpowered the par-5s with length and deadly putting? Who played
mistake-free golf while parring East Lake's three closing holes,
three of the toughest pars you'll find on Tour? No, not the
all-powerful Tiger. It was Disco Man. Nice disguise, Phil.

We would be raving about Mickelson's year--the Tour Championship
was his fourth victory of 2000--if Woods hadn't racked up 17 wins,
including the last three majors, in 1999-2000. So instead we'll
rave about how Mickelson is the only earthling to take down Woods
twice this year.

Did somebody say Tiger needs a rival? Forget David Duval, Sergio
Garcia and any more of those Monday-night Battles at Wherever. As
for Ernie Els, this year's second banana in the majors, call him
a cab. Mickelson is the man for this job. Last February he
outplayed Woods down the stretch at the Buick Invitational,
ending Tiger's six-tournament winning streak. Now Mickelson can
also say that he and Ed Fiori are the only players to whip Woods
by coming from behind. (Tiger, though, is still an amazing 20-2
when he has led or been tied for the lead after 54 holes.) True,
the slow-moving World Ranking still lists Mickelson as No. 3,
behind Woods and Els, but in a world in which perceptions count,
he is clearly perceived as the Best Player Without an Animal

Funny how outdueling Woods turned the Tour Championship into a
significant event. Due to its early-November dates, absurdly big
purse (Jim Furyk got $80,000 in last-place cash last week even
though, because of a wrist injury, he didn't show up) and the
malaise of the over-golfed pros, the Tour Championship has
usually been more snoozeworthy than newsworthy. Too many fat and
happy players have showed up with rusty blades, Mickelson among
them. He hadn't finished better than 12th in seven previous Tour
Championships. "I never really prepared for these last few
events, and I wanted to put a stop to that," he says. "This is
the first time I spent two or three weeks before this tournament
working on playing well."

The results were obvious. Mickelson bounced back from a six-week
break to finish second in Las Vegas a month ago, star for the
U.S. in the Presidents Cup, then top runner-up Woods as well as
Els, Nick Price and Vijay Singh, who all tied for third, at East
Lake. Part of Mickelson's motivation was to finish second on the
money list, even though he trailed Woods by $5 million, a gap he
couldn't have closed with a winning lotto ticket. "Every year I
would come to this tournament and drop a few spaces on the money
list," Mickelson said. "I didn't want to come here and lose
ground again."

Winning carried a $900,000 prize and clinched No. 2 for
Mickelson, whose 13-under 267 gave him a two-stroke victory. He
planned to skip this week's season-ending American Express
Championship at Valderrama in Sotogrande, Spain, and head home to
Scottsdale, Ariz. "I want to hang up my clubs for a while and get
into the holiday season," he said.

Woods already seems to have the Christmas spirit. In position to
win two weeks in a row, he uncharacteristically failed to come
through on both occasions. Duffy Waldorf dusted him at Disney
World with a closing 62. Mickelson prevailed when Woods,
struggling with his swing, failed to birdie East Lake's par-5
15th on Sunday, a hole he had eagled two days earlier, and then
bogeyed the 17th when his fairway bunker shot flew so far left,
it nearly went swimming.

"If he had putted even halfway decent, he would've won [the
Disney]," says Steve Flesch, who was paired with Woods for the
final two rounds that week. "He three-putted three par-5s on the
weekend. It was funny. I was two shots ahead of him with three or
four holes left, and people were yelling, 'C'mon, Steve, stay
with him.' People don't expect anybody to beat him--and with good

Yes, Woods is human. His kryptonite is a swing flaw: Sometimes
his lower body fires out too soon on the forward swing, leaving
the club "stuck," as he calls it, behind his right hip. The
result is a shot either blocked right or pulled left. The fierce
bermuda rough at East Lake made missing fairways a losing
proposition. That Woods shot 66-69 on the weekend despite hitting
only 57% of the fairways was a testament to his ability to score.
"It's the same as always," Woods said of his flaw. "I couldn't
get it out of my swing this week."

On the 17th hole on Sunday, trailing Mickelson by one, Woods
pushed his drive into the bunker and then hit slightly behind the
ball with a nine-iron, producing the yank that nearly sent the
ball into a lake. He gouged his next shot onto the green but
couldn't drain the 40-footer for par to stay within striking
distance. When he failed to ace the final hole, a 232-yard par-3,
Mickelson was a winner. "I played poorly all week," Woods said.
"I felt pressure on every shot because I didn't know where the
ball was going. The left trees were in play, the right trees were
in play, the road was in play."

Woods still pulled off a number of amazing shots. He made
everyone's Thursday-night highlights with his recovery off pine
needles at the base of a tree on the 5th hole. He hit a
shot--adding a Tasmanian devil-like spinout on his follow-through
for effect--that hooked like a Pedro Martinez curveball, finishing
just short of the green. "A routine hook," Woods deadpanned.
"That's why you practice those shots."

On Friday he blew a massive tee shot over the pines guarding the
right corner of the 15th fairway, hit six-iron onto the green and
sank a 20-footer for eagle. "If I tried to hit it over those
pines, I'd be down in the bushes playing Ping-Pong off the
trees," said Chris Perry, who was paired with Woods. "I knew he'd
make that putt. It was pretty much, 'Pick it up, Tiger,' because
that is what he thrives on."

The next day at the same hole, Woods hit a low two-iron off the
tee that would've made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar duck but still went
260 yards. He had 235 yards to the green and stuck a four-iron
shot in the greenside bermuda. Woods played a brilliant flop from
the wiry stuff to two feet for a tap-in birdie.

He didn't enjoy enough holes like that one, though, and failed to
become the first player to win 10 times in a year since Sam Snead
won 11 tournaments in 1950. Woods did lower his scoring average
to 68.06 and is a lock to break Byron Nelson's record of 68.33,
set in 1945. "I'd like to do something a little better than
that," said Woods, who hasn't had a score over par since the GTE
Byron Nelson Classic last May. "You can probably figure it out."
O.K., it's this: If Tiger shoots 267 (17 under) or better this
week at Valderrama, the first two digits of his average will be,
ahem, 67.

Woods left East Lake in his dark brown Buick Regal--the rest of
the field was assigned Mercedes courtesy cars. When Buick's new
sport utility vehicle rolls off the assembly line next spring,
word is that Woods gets the first one and fellow Buick endorser
Ben Crenshaw the second.

Speaking of drive, Mickelson has a lot more behind that grin than
you may think. He doesn't have a major among his 17 Tour titles,
but the best year of his career has given him the confidence to
at least talk about winning one. During Sunday's award ceremony
on the 18th green, Mickelson told the crowd what East Lake's
history meant to him. "To win a championship on Bobby Jones's
home course is like being a part of his legacy," he said.
"There's another home course of his about two hours away that I'd
like to be a part of as well."

He meant Augusta National, home of the Masters. The gauntlet has
been dropped. We have a challenger. Suddenly, April doesn't seem
so far away.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Un-four-gettable This year Mickelson topped Woods twice, had two other Tour wins and earned more than $4.7 million.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Army golf Woods couldn't stop himself from going left, right, left the last two weeks.

"Every year I'd come to this tournament and drop a few spaces on
the money list," Mickelson said. "I didn't want to lose ground