Phil Mickelson, by slipping on the third Masters green jacket of his career, has suddenly injected his name into the “all-time greats” discussion. Only three men—Jack Nicklaus (6), and Arnold Palmer & Tiger Woods (four apiece)—have ever won more at Augusta National.
Tiger, do you hear the footsteps?
Probably not. But then again, Woods, who dances to a different drum, probably feels a completely different pressure from anyone else.
Mickelson's total of four majors (including the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol) and 38 wins on the PGA Tour, while placing him solidly in the World Golf Hall of Fame discussion, barely qualifies Lefty for consideration of the top 10 golfers in PGA history; Woods, with his 82 worldwide wins (71 on the PGA Tour) and 14 majors, is on the extremely short list of best golfers the world has ever known.
Nevertheless, as Tiger takes yet another self-imposed sabbatical from the game, for the first time in years, he faces the very real possibility that before this year is over, he might be looking up at a brand new world number one: Mickelson.
To put the historical feud between the two into clearer context, consider this: Mickelson has never held the world number one ranking before. Woods is one of only 12 men to hold the honor, and his 596 weeks in the top spot far exceeds Greg Norman's total (331), is greater than the total of the next five men (584 weeks) and is creeping up on the sum of the other 11 men (660 weeks) combined .
The Mick is closing fast on Tiger in world rankings, however.
Currently, Mickelson's 9.17 score returns him to the second spot behind Woods (11.75). Unlike tennis rankings, however, Tiger's upcoming break will have no real impact on his ranking. Mickelson is going to have to reel him in.
The way he's playing at the moment, that's doable. Because at this second, Phil Mickelson has stepped into the vacuum caused by Tiger Woods' lack of activity and can lay a legitimate claim to “best golfer in the world right now.”
With emphasis on the phrase “right now.”
We should emphasize right now because of the way a players' world ranking is computed.
Everything is based on a players' results over the last two years. That means (theoretically) that every week, one result drops from his score and his average changes. While Phil's win at last week's Masters nudged his average up, Tiger's result (T-4), though impressive, actually costs him points because two years ago he finished in second place all alone at Augusta.
Points are assigned for each qualifying worldwide tournament that a player has entered, and the points are added up and averaged out to yield the world ranking. So Phil Mickelson has pulled in an average of 9.17 rankings points per event for the last two seasons, while Tiger Woods has averaged 11.75.
This keeps a golfer from going on a short hot streak and storming up the prestigious world rankings like a lightning bolt. Rather, consistency and participation in tournaments which are traditionally known to be more difficult, with stronger fields, are rewarded.
Woods will not have a lot of results falling off the books in the coming weeks, as he typically plays a relatively light schedule in the weeks following the Masters.
Mickelson has been getting uneven results as he battled off-the-course difficulties of his own, between his mother and his wife's cancer scares. That hasn't kept him from winning each of the last three most prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour: the Tour Championship (by three strokes over Woods), the WGC-HSBC Champions event (a European Tour event which is also sanctioned by all the other major tours, including the PGA), and of course the Masters.
That, ladies and gentlemen, makes Lefty the hottest golfer in the world.
Forget the fact that he's only got two top-10 finishes in his other seven events this year. Just ask Tiger or Jack Nicklaus: it's how you do in the bigger events, especially the majors, that define a golfer's true greatness. And despite his seeming indifference right now, you've got to believe that Woods is very well aware that Mickelson is “the Man” in the most prestigious Tour events at the moment.
That essentially makes Phil numero uno.
On the other hand, we must face facts: Tiger Woods doesn't touch a golf club for almost half a year and he finishes in a tie for fourth at the Masters? That is, simply put, mind-boggingly (yes, I know I made that up!) amazing and tells the world that Mr. Woods isn't losing his effectiveness.
That fact, combined with Mickelson's advancing age (40 on June 16) and Lefty's own growing allegations of sexual misconduct (whispers about an illegitimate child), means one simple thing: it's now or never, Phil.
If you want to officially wrest the world number one ranking from Tiger Woods, you've got to do it now. Later on this year, you're going to have too many distractions, and Tiger is eventually going to be putting a hurt on the rest of the tour before too long.
Yes, you're the best in the world at this moment, Phil. Finally. Congratulations, and enjoy this run while it lasts. I get the feeling it might not be very long before you will once again be in the long, cold shadow of Tiger Woods.