With his recent triumph in the 2013 Open Championship, near miss at the U.S. Open and subsequent rise to the second spot in the world rankings, there’s no doubt Phil Mickelson is Tiger Woods’ most significant rival as the PGA Championship prepares to tee off.
Thing is, Phil’s been exactly that for the majority of Tiger’s career; we just lost sight of it for some reason.
His struggles between 2009 and 2011 notwithstanding, Woods’ dominance of the sport has lasted more than a decade-and-a-half, and challengers to his lofty status as the world’s best player have come and gone.
Golfers such as David Duval, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and, most recently, Rory McIlroy have all been viewed as a chief adversary to Tiger at one time or another. A lasting battle with any of them has never really materialized.
Mickelson, however, is different.
He is arguably the most popular golfer in the world, and his talent has always been the closest to rivaling Tiger’s. He’s had his peaks and valleys, but no golfer this side of Woods has accomplished as much in the past 15 years as Mickelson has.
Lefty’s five major championships are second only to Tiger’s 14 among golfers of his era. He owns an impressive 42 PGA Tour victories (ninth on the PGA's all-time wins list) and has amassed more than $72 million in career earnings on tour.
Yes, all three of those accomplishments pale in comparison to Tiger’s career achievements, but they take a backseat to no other player currently teeing it up on the PGA or European tours.
It’s not just in performance that Tiger and Phil are such worthy adversaries. We like our rivals to be different, and the two couldn't be more dissimilar on and off the golf course.
We want them to respect each other but not necessarily like each other. It’s fair to say Phil and Tiger don’t hang out away from the course.
The two also have the most passionate fanbases in golf and are the only two golfers who transcend the sport.
Given all that, the two were absolutely made to be rivals, and for parts of their parallel career paths, they have been.
Yet, for some reason, we have looked away from Phil and toward other less accomplished golfers as primary challengers to Woods.
Early in his career, Mickelson quite famously struggled to win a first major, and that was a blemish on his standing in relation to Woods. Tiger won his first in 1997, seven years before Mickelson finally won the 2004 Masters.
That victory, however, ushered in a three-year period where Woods and Mickelson were the clear alpha dogs of their sport.
From 2004 to 2006, the duo combined to win seven majors and 16 other PGA Tour events.
In 2005, Mickelson slipped the green jacket onto Woods. In 2006, Woods returned the favor to Lefty.
The two were playing the best golf of their careers at the same time, and the sport was basking in the glow. The only thing they didn't do was battle down the stretch of a major, but that seemed like a certainty to transpire given the lofty status of their play.
Turns out that wasn't the case.
After winning the 2006 Masters, Mickelson went into a four-year major drought, and we all know what happened to Tiger after his 2008 U.S. Open victory.
So quickly after proving he could, Phil stopped winning majors. Tiger couldn't stay healthy, was buried by scandal and failed to even win a PGA Tour event in 2010 and 2011.
Under the weight of those struggles, their rivalry that was so strong for three years vanished.
When Woods finally returned to solid form in 2012, Mickelson appeared to have been passed by McIlroy as the player most prepared to stare down Woods. At this season’s opening, all the talk was about a Woods-McIlroy rivalry.
Lefty, however, had other ideas.
His amazing summer has not only revitalized his career, it has turned back the clock and returned to golf the rivalry it always needed.
"I feel as though I started to play my best golf in the last four or five or six months," Mickelson said Tuesday. "I feel like I've keyed in on two areas that I've struggled with for years, which is putting and off the tee. I feel very confident . . . where I've turned weaknesses into strengths. I believe this serves me well in major championships."
Woods has already won five tournaments this year, including two World Golf Championship events. He’s reclaimed his world No. 1 ranking and has two top-10 finishes in majors this year.
Mickelson has won three times this season, including one of the most amazing major victories in recent memory just a few weeks ago at Muirfield. He finished second in the U.S. Open for the sixth time in his career back in June and has risen to right where he should be—No. 2 in the world right behind Woods.
So with the PGA Championship upon us, we have the Woods-Mickelson rivalry back from the shadows, and the sport couldn't be any better off for it.
"Having him back, having him play well, having him win like he's won this year is great for the game of golf," Mickelson said of Tiger's performance at Firestone. "And the work that he's been doing with Sean Foley has been noticeable and been paying off and he's not having the shots that he's had for a few years. He's playing solid and he played great last week. I think it's great for the game to have him back playing well.
At Oak Hill Country Club, the two seem absolutely poised to provide us with the one thing we've missed out on during the convergence of their spectacular careers—a true head-to-head battle with a major championship on the line.
Not only would that be remarkable theater in golf's final major of the year, but it would also remind us all that the rival we so badly wanted for Woods has really been there all along.