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Rivals return to competitive golf
MIAMI -- His return to competition was long overdue.
After an absence of just over eight months, as speculation intensified whether his best golf was behind him, he now looks as good as ever and has helped bring some buzz back to the PGA Tour. He might even be considered the favorite at Augusta National.
Welcome back, Lefty.
About the only thing better than the return of Tiger Woods is the revival of Phil Mickelson, renewing this generation's best rivalry with the Masters right around the corner.
Mickelson wasn't really gone, of course, but it sure seemed that way.
He was the one player who had the most to gain when Woods had season-ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open and disappeared for eight months. The stage was set for Mickelson, for the first time in his career, to win a PGA Tour money title, be voted player of the year, perhaps move up to No. 1 in the world.
And then he vanished.
Mickelson opened with a 79 at Royal Birkdale, the first major without Woods, and was never a factor.
He never broke par at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championship.
He didn't win a single tournament the rest of the year, and really came close only twice.
Few other players truly relish competition against Woods, and you have to wonder if golf is as much fun for Lefty without Woods around. He doesn't buy into this. Asked at the 2004 Masters what it was like to have the lead with Woods nine shots behind, Mickelson smiled and said, "It doesn't suck, I can say that."
Even so, the timing is peculiar.
The week Woods announced his return to competition, Mickelson had rounds of 63 and 62 at Riviera to win the Northern Trust Open, his first victory since the month before Woods won his 14th major at Torrey Pines.
Moving up in the rankings
Playing in the same 72-hole event with Woods for the first time since the U.S. Open, Mickelson went wire-to-wire at Doral to win the CA Championship. He closed with a 69 on Sunday, despite spending a few hours in the hospital the night before with a stomach virus.
The victory moved him to No. 2 in the world, which is where he was when Woods left, and has put him closer than ever to No. 1. Depending on how Woods does at Bay Hill next week, Mickelson could have a mathematical chance to reach the top when he next plays at the Shell Houston Open.
The question is how long Mickelson can keep this going -- and how soon before Woods hits his stride.
Woods went 68-68 on the weekend at Doral to finish in the top 10, but there was no cause for alarm. His swing looked as sound as ever, and he had every chance to contend except for his putting. The rust of being out for eight months showed in his inability to post a score.
For someone who finished eight shots behind, he appeared to be at peace.
"I have not controlled the golf ball that well in a very long time, and that was fun," Woods said after the third round. "I was hitting shots that I had not been able to hit before, which was such a great feeling. I'm just not making any putts."
After his victory, someone asked Mickelson if he felt Woods would be in peak form sooner than some expected.
"I don't think anybody is concerned about that," Mickelson said. "He's the greatest player of all time, arguably, he or Jack [Nicklaus]. And he'll get back to that level. I'm hoping it's in five weeks and not four."
That was a reference to the Masters being four weeks away.
Both will play one more tournament before then -- Woods at Bay Hill, Mickelson at Houston -- and no telling who will be atop the world rankings when they sit down for the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night at Augusta National.
What excites Mickelson are tee shots that are going longer -- and straighter -- than he can remember, and producing a short-game DVD that forced him to keep it simple for the consumers. It allowed him to go back to the basics, and his short game was superb at Doral.
Plus, he said he has finished making changes with swing coach Butch Harmon, and now is simply fine-tuning everything.
"I'm playing some of my best golf," said Mickelson, whose 36 career victories include three majors.
This could get good over the next few months.
For all the talk over emerging young players like Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy, and despite Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major at the Masters, these are the two names that drive golf.
Woods transcends the sport. That much was clear by the size of his gallery, even when he was never in weekend contention. But every star needs a foil, and no one plays that role like Mickelson.
Mickelson had history in his grasp three years ago at Winged Foot, when Woods' father died and he sat out two months, returning at the U.S. Open only to miss the cut for the first time in a major. Mickelson had a chance to win his third straight major until throwing it away with a double bogey on the last hole. He has not contended for a major since.
Woods is on the rebound again, this time for health reasons.
Mickelson is hitting his stride.
Golf was without its biggest star for eight months. Now it has two of them back.