DORAL, FL - MARCH 12: Phil Mickelson plays a shot on the 12th hole during round two of the 2010 WGC-CA Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at Doral on March 12, 2010 in Doral, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Phil Mickelson
From a golfing standpoint, he’s scandal-tried and tested and come out unscratched, without a trace a blood. This is what Thursday and Friday have taught us.
The evidence is in and a conclusion has been reached: Five months in tabloid hell wasn’t enough to turn him into your ordinary, middle-of-the-pack hacker on the PGA Tour. When it comes to Tiger and the others, nothing has changed. He’s Tiger, they’re not. He’s bearing down on the tournament lead and continuing his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record. They’re nervously watching him make his move. Maybe the scandal changed him as a person. It hasn’t touched him as a golfer. It couldn’t penetrate that elephant-like armor.
He’s tied for third place, two off the lead. This is the fourth time at the Masters Woods shot this well after two rounds, and he won all four. He’s also slowly pulling the dialogue away from his tainted recent past. He knows that in sports, winning has a way of deodorizing the stink. So the stakes in this tournament are somewhat higher than most others.
“I usually put myself in contention here,” Woods said, “and this year I’m right there.”
When he’s in his element, it’s hard to imagine Woods crashing into a fire hydrant and a tree. That happened to him in his personal life. It doesn’t in golf. There’s a difference. And so, with his focus and concentration squarely devoted to making 10-foot putts this weekend, who or what’s gonna keep Tiger from being in the hunt on Sunday?
The Augusta National course itself? No chance. It can’t be tricked up to trip up Tiger and not anyone else. The last five years he has finished in the top six, twice at No. 2.
A challenge from another golfer on the leaderboard? Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Anthony Kim are all solid and capable players ... who have exactly zero major championships combined. The ageless and wonderful Tom Watson? Going, going ... Fred Couples? Gone.
That leaves ...? Of course, Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson staring down Tiger on Sunday afternoon would be made-for-CBS, the perfect finale for this tournament, given the circumstances leading up. And who could forget last year? Tiger and Phil, paired in an intense final found, trading punches, storming toward the lead before Tiger bogeyed 17 and 18 and Phil missed a short eagle putt on 15 and they both caved to Kenny Perry and eventual champ Angel Cabrera.
You can even see the contrasting backdrop materializing for a potential repeat performance.
Phil: Fuzzy, family guy who’s deeply affected by his wife Amy’s courageous ongoing battle with breast cancer.
Tiger: Careless cad who chased countless tail during his marriage and made life miserable for his wife, who remains in hiding.
Phil: Crowd favorite who’s raking in the endorsement dollars.
Tiger: Late-night butt of jokes who’s playing this tournament without a corporate logo on his bag.
Phil: Sentimental shotgun-rider who’s always reduced to a supporting role in any golf drama involving Woods.
Tiger: Fist-pumping favorite whenever he tees it up.
Anyway, this tournament is allowing Woods to lash back at the tabloid media coverage and his critics without actually saying something. When addressing his reckless behavior, he has no choice but to shovel mea culpas and apologies. But not with a driver in his grip. The only way he can channel any frustration is through golf. And he’ll actually be applauded for producing results. Strange how that works.
Plus, the only surprise here is why people are surprised. He took five months off, not 10. He went to rehab for his night-time activity, not his daytime job. He didn’t play any tournaments leading up to the Masters, but in an ordinary year, he would’ve entered only two or three warm-up tournaments anyway.
“I had to be more focused on my practice sessions,” Woods said. “It would’ve been nice to have an actual normal schedule. I had to make sure I got everything I possibly could out of every practice session.”
He’s finding fairways, seems to have his putter fixed, and smelling a chance to notch another major victory. Like old times again. There’s a reason why the first round drew a record number of viewers (for cable) and why millions of folks will put aside their baseball fetish this weekend. People want to see Tiger do what he does.
There does appear to be a bit of anticipation about Sunday and the possibilities. Only one player can make that happen. Therefore, dare we say that, after poking fun at him and tsk-tsking him and verbally slapping him for being such a poor role model, we are ... rooting him on?