Starr: Can Mickelson Rival Tiger Woods at the PGA?

If I recall my long-ago flirtations with Sophocles and his Greek ilk, misfortune only rises to the level of tragedy when its seeds reside in the central character.

Golf is but a pleasant diversion and, for me, never rises to that level. Still, the 72nd hole of the recent U.S. Open may be as close as it will ever come. Phil Mickelson’s implosion on that final hole has been likened to a similar disaster that befell Frenchman Jean Van de Velde in the 1999 British Open. In truth, they are not remotely the same. Van de Velde was a journeyman who had never before been in that position (nor will be again) and was totally unequipped to handle it.

Mickelson, on the other hand, had shed his “best player never to have won a major” at the 2005 PGA and had then won his first green jacket at the 2006 Masters. A par on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot would have given him three major triumphs in a row, a feat of Woodsian proportions. When he pulled his drive left and found his path to the green and victory blocked by trees, he knew exactly what to do in that situation—to play safe and keep hope alive.

But he didn’t do it. Mickelson’s weakness has always been his hubris, the desire to win style points and to wow the fans (or, at least, the fan in himself) with his repertoire of spectacular shots. Kind of an Evel Knievel approach. This time, however, there were no miracles left in his bag. As a result, Lefty took a precipitous a fall from his newly elevated status as legitimate challenger to Tiger for No. 1 in the world back to “best player never to have won a U.S. Open.” At the time, he pronounced, “I am such an idiot.”

Actually, Phil was just being himself, hard-wired to go for it against better judgment and all odds. It is that “Tin Cup” quality that makes Mickelson such a crowd favorite. We fans cannot relate to Tiger’s transcendent talent and ferocious mental discipline. But we all can relate to this Phil fella—the puckish man-child who, with a twinkle in his eyes, says, “I know this is foolish, but what the hell … let’s go for broke.”

On Thursday, at this year’s final major, the PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago, Mickelson will tee off along with Woods and Geoff Ogilvy, the talented, young Aussie who was the beneficiary of Mickelson’s U.S. Open collapse. And any questions surrounding that lustrous lineup all pertain to Phil. Are we destined to see that Lefty of old, the undisciplined golfer with an overdeveloped taste for the spectacular gamble? Or will he resurrect the new Phil, the PGA and Masters champion, who was supposed to have grasped that the game of golf is ultimately judged by the final score.

In the decade that Tiger has dominated his sport, we wave witnessed a handful of superb golfers who, by virtue of a hot streak or a major championship, have been established by fans and reporters as a putative rival. Before Mickelson, there was, of course, David Duval, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. Duval is still trying to rebound from burnout and an extended absence from the PGA Tour. And the other three seemed to retreat quickly from the challenge, as if they knew they had flown too close to the sun. All three remains standouts, ranked among the top 10 in the world, but none have mustered the kind of sustained challenge that a rivalry with Tiger demands.

Mickelson, the No. 2 ranked player in the world, appeared to be made of sterner stuff, the one guy who might stand toe-to-toe with Tiger major after major. And the one guy who, by the quality of his challenge, could elevate them both. Perhaps it seems as if Tiger couldn’t possibly soar any higher. But rivalry propels even the greatest champions to unimagined heights. Muhammad Ali would be something less today had not Joe Frazier mounted his fierce and relentless challenge.

Paired with Woods over the next few days, Mickelson has the perfect stage on which to demonstrate that he isn’t content to settle for a prime role in the supporting cast for each Tiger vs. the field drama. But if he hopes to demonstrate that he is indeed the real deal, that he is worthy, there is a certain urgency. On the heels of the U.S. Open fiasco, 22nd place and 13 strokes behind Tiger at the British was a big step in the wrong direction. Failure can take on its own momentum. For Phil at the PGA, it may be now or never.

Yankees-Red Sox: Pitching Woes

Speaking of rivalries, there are many remarkable things about that between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two teams that have spent the last several seasons in virtual lockstep. But when it resumes Friday in Boston with a critical five-game series, nothing is more remarkable than the probable pitching match-up for Friday night’s contest: New York’s Sidney Ponson vs. Boston’s Jason Johnson.

Frankly, I am hard-pressed to remember a Red Sox-Yankees game of recent vintage, or indeed any game between contenders that featured two worse pitchers—a pair of washed-up, former Baltimore Orioles hurlers, neither of whom wouldn’t warrant a spot in the O’s current woeful rotation.

Ponson, in four appearances for the Yankees since being dumped by St. Louis, has an ERA of 8.78 and opponents have a .377 on-base percentage against him. Almost inconceivably, Johnson may actually be pitching worse. In five starts since joining Boston after Cleveland cut him loose, Johnson has an ERA of 7.20 while allowing opponents an on-base percentage of .400. Red Sox star David Ortiz has an on-base percentage of .397; in other words, every hitter Johnson faces has a slightly better chance of getting on base than Big Papi.

I can’t imagine what the over/under on this epic match-up might be, but I know I wouldn’t take the under with anything less than 17 runs. I do know that it reflects pitching woes on both teams that, regardless of how their A.L. East battle turns out, portend big trouble in the post-season.

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