That big smile Phil Mickelson flashed at Muirfield after he knew he had won the Open Championship was really his best imitation of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, a show of gleeful and maybe a bit sinister exuberance as he returned to prominence.
"Don’t be so quick to count me out," he might have said as he clutched the claret jug in celebration. He might as well have been waving a bloody axe.
And don’t be so quick to anoint the wayward Rory McIlroy as the heir apparent to Tiger Woods, because just when you thought you had one of those great old guy versus new guy rivalries in Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy, an even older guy returned to the arena.
In many ways, it made sense for the golf world to grab on to a Rory/Tiger rivalry. Rory was the hot new thing and he had proven his worth with two consecutive great years of play.
Phil Mickelson’s win at the Open Championship not only plopped him firmly into second place in the World Rankings but also shot him into a renewed rivalry with his nemesis while pushing the next coming of Tiger into the deep rough.
Lefty made a bold statement with his come-from-behind win at Muirfield that goes way beyond winning his fifth major: Hold on one minute with that Rory versus Tiger stuff.
Consider Phil’s last month, in which he finished second at the U.S. Open, won the Scottish Open and then somehow tamed Muirfield with a driverless 66 on the last day. If that isn’t a statement of replenishment and resolve, nothing is.
After two stellar years of play that included two major titles, Rory had been thrust into competition against Tiger by the fans, the media and the marketing gurus at Nike, which just so happens to sponsor both him and Tiger.
So confident was Nike that 23-year-old Rory was the next Tiger and so equally confident was Rory that he was the next Tiger that they made a commercial in which each tries to upstage the other. In it, Rory is seen as self-assured and funny, two things we haven’t seen from him lately. Tiger is just Tiger: supremely confident, somewhat funny and ultimately the winner.
Talk about getting ahead of yourself. Rory has since become a head case who cannot put two solid rounds together. He surely hasn’t done well with those new Nike clubs he switched to after signing with the company in that big sponsorship deal.
So great was the desire for a Rory versus Tiger rivalry that Phil was nowhere in the discussion. For a short period in 2012, that was all people wanted to talk about.
But with his latest win, Phil has pushed Rory into third place in the world rankings. The uneasy young Irishman, who hasn’t won on tour this year, looks like he will slide much further down the list as the year goes by. Rory’s ranking has more to do with his 2012 record when he won four times, including his second major title at the PGA Championship, than with his current state of affairs.
Rory’s main rival these days is not even Tiger but his own state of mind, as seen by how he stumbled around Muirfield eventually missing the cut.
So, as Rory backs away, Phil has now asserted himself as Tiger’s top rival. Tiger may have his issues of winning on the weekend when it counts, but he will have to face Phil as he struggles to win that elusive 15th major title.
And it was Phil who showed Tiger how to win from behind by coming from five shots down at Muirfield.
It was the kind of performance that puts nails in rivals' coffins. For Tiger, who hasn’t won a major since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, it was tantamount to a death knell.
Entering 2013, it was Tiger and Rory who were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world standings. Phil was way back at eighth. Why not forget him? He’s getting ready for the senior tour, anyway.
At 43, Phil was aging and ailing, and you never knew which Phil would show up on the course. Would it be the one who knocked driver after driver out of bounds or the wizard with the wedge who sank long birdie cups and blew away his competition? 2012 was a pretty good example of his unpredictability. He won once, had seven top-10 finishes, missed the cut a three times and finished pretty much out of the money another handful of times.
Then, like Tiger’s worst nightmare, he just kept on coming back.
Ultimately, Phil may be the last guy Tiger wants to tussle with. When it comes to experience, he makes Rory look like the child he is with 42 wins on the tour, five major titles and a record-number second-place finishes at the U.S. Open.
Rory, while obviously highly talented, doesn't yet possess the kind of mental toughness to stare down Tiger. Nor has he shown the ability to deal with all of the stuff that goes with being No. 1 in the world—the fame, the spotlight and the pressure. Phil handles that with as much grace and savvy as anyone.
Phil, more than anyone else on the tour, possesses the guile and the guts to match Tiger at his own game. A consummate gambler, he never backs down from a challenge.
That's why it was so great to see him lift his driver in favor of a fifth wedge at Muirfield. The best wedge player in the world had added another arrow to his quiver. He had also acknowledged he didn’t need a driver to win. He proved it with two phenomenal 3-woods to one the 17th hole on Sunday that eventually led to a birdie and assured him of the win.
But that is exactly why Phil is loved by his fans. Because he goes for it. That is what won it for him at the Masters with one of the greatest shots in majors history—around the tree, over the traps and onto the green, thank you.
Tiger and Phil have been through this before. They have been competing for more than 15 years. In 2009, after Tiger’s public demise due to womanizing that led to his divorce and a severe drop in the rankings, they locked horns.
Just last year in the final round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Phil was the one who stared down Tiger in the final group on Sunday, eventually pummeling Tiger by 11 shots.
The fans loved it. The media loved it. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come.
Both Tiger and Phil will have their sights set on the PGA next month in a renewed battle in which Rory will probably be just a footnote.
In the meantime, Lefty is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack, and Tiger better watch out.