Tiger or Phil: Who Has the Edge in Every Golf Attribute?

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistNovember 8, 2018

Tiger or Phil: Who Has the Edge in Every Golf Attribute?

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    We're only weeks—or perhaps only days, depending on when you've clicked overaway.

    American golf stalwarts Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will join the ranks of Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant, Floyd Mayweather Jr./Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar/Randy Couture when they get together for a high-stakes pay-per-view throwdown across 18 holes (or fewer) at Shadow Creek in North Las Vegas on Nov. 23.

    It's been labeled "Capital One's The Match: Tiger vs. Phil"it'll go for $19.99 via a handful of providers, including B/R Liveand the winner and his entourage will exit with a cool $9 million. That's in addition to whatever cash is generated from side wagers, covering closest to the pin and longest drive, among others.

    Both players, incidentally, have suggested they'll donate some of their financial windfalls to charity.

    Needless to say, the two men have dominated both the domestic and world golf scenes over the past 20-plus years, and their intent to match up on PPV makes it mandatory that we break down the matchup and declare who has a pre-round leg up.

Off the Tee

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    Tiger: The 14-time major winner no longer hits it farther than anyone else, but his average drive of 303.4 yards in the 2018 season—particularly at age 42 and after myriad surgeries and physical rebuilds—is solid.

    That average placed him a respectable 34th on the PGA Tour, but his biggest issue has been ball control. That's shown by a plunge to 129th in driving accuracy, with a percentage of 58.98—thanks to 545 of a possible 924 fairways hit.

    Phil: He's two inches taller and about 15 pounds heavier, according to his Tour profile, but it still may surprise casual fans that Mickelson drove the ball about as far as Tiger in the 2018 season, coming in at 300.7 yards across 158 drives (good for 54th).

    That said, he suffers dramatically when the comparison shifts to accuracy.

    Mickelson was barely better than a 50-50 proposition at hitting fairways, finishing at 51.59 percent after landing in 601 of a possible 1,165 (192nd).

    Verdict: There won't be a lot to discern when both guys put the ball in the fairway, but Woods will have the chance to gain an edge if Lefty is his typical inconsistent self off the tee.

Playing with Irons

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    GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/Getty Images

    Tiger: Iron play was a significant reason for Woods' return to elite status after what felt like years on the edge of irrelevance. Gone were the gasps at scattershot approaches, replaced at least much of the time by the sorts of in-close landings that characterized his days as a routine major contender.

    In fact, he was good for slightly better than a two-for-three rate—68.10 percent—while hitting 809 of 1,188 greens in regulation in the 2018 season. That placed him a pedestrian, but workable, 67th on the PGA Tour.

    Phil: Mickelson was again within hailing distance of Woods but a few paces behind. He hit 971 of 1,494 greens, which figures to a 64.99 percent rate (136th on Tour).

    Verdict: As was the case with the driver, there's not a lot of space between the two rivals over a season's worth of play. But in an 18-hole format where each shot will be magnified in importance, precision will matter more than anything. And Woods has more of it.

Short Game

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Tiger: Woods gained .365 shots per round from around the green in 2018, and he was sixth on the PGA Tour in scrambling from the 10- to 20-yard range.

    He's a less noteworthy 53rd on Tour from 10 yards and in, however, and is slightly less than a lock from the sand, where he saved par 49.51 percent of the time.

    Phil: If there's any category where Mickelson has a clear advantage—particularly in perception—it's when the players get around the green.

    Lefty has made a living waving his wand and creating magic with flop shots, drop shots and flat-out impossible shots. Even at 48, it's still the area where he looks most comfortable.

    Mickelson was sixth on Tour in scrambling from inside of 10 yards and 17th in scrambles from 30 or more yards. He remains a near lock from the fringe, too, where he was a 94.44 percent commodity—finding success in 34 of 36 attempts.

    Verdict: When he gets into trouble in close, Tiger will be, well...in trouble.

    Mickelson remains one of the game's signature players at keeping small numbers from turning into big numbers. He gets the nod here.

On the Green

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Tiger: When it came to Woods' putting in 2018, it depended on what round he was in.

    He averaged 27.71 putts per round in the opening 18 holes across 17 tournaments during the season, good for fourth on the PGA Tour. But the number climbed by better than a full stroke in his combined second rounds and was up to 28.94 putts per round in final-round play at 16 events.

    Interestingly, putts from 15 to 20 feet were his statistical wheelhouse. He made 27.72 percent from that range, good for third on Tour.

    Phil: Mickelson was better than Woods with the short stick on every day but Thursday in 2018, finishing ahead of him in putts per round in Friday, Saturday and Sunday play. In fact, his 27.21-putts-per-round average on Sundays was fourth on Tour.

    He converted birdies on 36.6 percent of the greens he hit in regulation—second-best on Tour and 15 slots ahead of Woods (32.96 percent, 266 of 807 greens).

    Verdict: Though the greens have been a Woods staple over the course of their respective careers, particularly when highlights of the U.S. Amateur or U.S. Open are shown, the numbers suggest Mickelson is closer to being the man these days with a putter in his hand. Advantage, Lefty.

Mental Makeup

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Tiger: It was the signature image of golf between 1997 and 2008.

    Woods on a Sunday, in a red shirt, rendering a field of world-class opponents useless with a few good shots and a few more confident glares.

    And while no one's saying the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth are jelly-legged at the prospect of dueling a 42-year-old Tiger, there's no denying his swagger is a lot closer to prime condition these days than it's been since his most recent major victory.

    Phil: By contrast, it may be Mickelson's biggest question mark.

    Though no one with any sense would contend he doesn't have every shot in his bag, it's far less likely that you'll find an observer quite as sold on Mickelson's 24/7 mettle.

    Six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open will do that, and it's an even starker contrast when he's standing alongside a guy long branded as the game's best closer.

    Verdict: A one-round match is a crapshoot, and Woods' impact on competitors is more noticeable over the course of 72 holes than 18. But if this duel is coming down to the final two holes and is to be decided solely on internal elements, he's got to be the favorite.

Who's Better Right Now?

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    FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

    Tiger: He ended 2017 as the 656th-best golfer in the world.

    He entered this week at No. 13, powered by a win, two seconds and four other top-10 finishes across 18 events.

    Consider that win came in his pre-match finale—the Tour Championship in September—and it's no stretch to suggest Woods is as close to elite as he's been in half a decade. 

    Phil: It'd be foolish to suggest Mickelson is no longer a world-class player capable of winning.

    He bagged the WGC-Mexico Championship event in early March and went on to a second and four other top-10s over the rest of 2018.

    Still, his best effort in a major this season was a desultory tie for 24th at the British Open, and the prospect of him adding a sixth major or a career Grand Slam to his resume seem more remote by the round.

    Verdict: There's room for maneuvering on the other slides, but nearly none here.

    Rankings suggest Woods is better right now. Recent performances suggest Woods is better right now. Betting odds suggest Woods is better right now. And even Mickelson, if pressed, might concede that Woods is better right now.

    That doesn't mean he'll win an 18-hole shootout on pay-per-view television from the Nevada desert, but it's as good an indicator as any.