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Rivalry heats up between Philly Mick and Eldrick on eve of 2004 U.S. Open

By Greg Stoda, Contributor

There was a time not so long ago when Tiger Woods was professional golf's animal and Philip Alfred Mickelson was some guy who won a whole bunch of times except when it counted most.


Well, the simplest manner of explanation is that Tiger has turned into somebody named Eldrick who still happens to be very good but is no beast while Mickelson has turned into Philly Mick the crowd pleaser and favorite.

Most of this stems from the fact Woods hasn't won a major championship since the 2002 U.S. Open, which isn't exactly forever when measured in anything other than striped years. The reason for that, of course, is that Woods' win on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., was his seventh victory in a major championship over the previous 11 contested. At one time during that run, lest we forget, Woods was in possession of all four of the game's significant titles.

What the PGA Tour as a whole amounted to those two short years ago coming out of Bethpage Black was a fade to black for everbody not named Woods.

The remainder of what this new Eldrick-Philly Mick phenomenon stems from is Mickelson's breakthrough for his first major championship. He was mesmerizing on Sunday's back nine at Augusta National in winning The Masters despite looking like some goofy April fool while wearing a silly grin. It looked as though it had been affixed to his face with super glue. What? Did some self-help guru _ Dr. Phil calling for Philly Mick? _ tell Mickelson to smile ... and keep smiling no matter what happened?

Whatever it was, it worked.

Which brings us to the upcoming 2004 U.S. Open set for Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., not terribly far from Bethpage Black.

But never mind the geography.

Two years ago, nobody was giving anyone other than Woods much of a chance to win the U.S. Open or any other tournament in which he stuck a peg in the ground.

At this installment of the U.S. Open, though, a lot of folks will consider it an upset if Woods does win.

Which is ridiculous.

Sure, Woods against the field is a sucker bet. But that was true even when Woods was at the height of his powers. But if the bet is Woods against any single player _ including Mickelson _ then the game changes.

And that's true even though Woods' most significant recent problem of spraying drives hither and yon is going to be exaggerated by U.S. Open fairways so narrow you wouldn't be able to spell S-h-i-n-n-e-c-o-c-k across any of them.

So, yes, Woods will spend a bunch of time in the nasty U.S. Open rough.

Bulletin: So will everybody else.

That means, as usual, scrambling and putting will be of considerable consequence. Anyone not like Woods in that kind of contest?

Woods, for example, might have been better served throwing the golf ball off the tee box in his two most recent tournaments (Nelson and Wachovia) for the adventures he had using standard tactic. And he still almost won twice.

Shinnecock, by the way, is going to play at a modest length of 6,996 yards. That means Woods (and a bunch of other players) won't be hauling out the big stick or even the second-biggest one on many tee shots. Add the standard U.S. Open angst to the mix, and there's no telling how few drivers will be hit.

Corey Pavin wasn't a bomber. He won the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock with an even-par score.

Neither was Raymond Floyd an overpowering slugger when he won the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock in 1986 with a one-under-par total.

Mickelson, without question, has been the game's best player this season. He has been consistent in performance and intelligent in approach. But he also missed the cut at the Nelson and finished down the list at Colonial, which, to make a point, would be cause for alarmists to question Woods' abilities had he posted those results.

Woods hasn't won a stroke-play title this year.

But if he wins the U.S. Open, his reputation quickly will transform back into Tiger the tiger. It'll be so long to Eldrick.

That wouldn't mean Philly Mick suddenly would lose his new-found persona, but it sure would set up an interesting race to the British Open and PGA Championship.

Greg Stoda, Contributor

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