- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It’s been only four days since Phil Mickelson won his third major, and the hypemeisters are already casting him as Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods’ Jack Nicklaus.

OK, there’s no question that Lefty’s latest green jacket makes Tiger vs. Phil the most compelling rivalry the sport has seen for some time. But the next media type who invokes the Jack and Arnie comparison should have to spend the next year penning Martha Burk’s memoirs.

The analogy is specious on so many levels, one doesn’t know whom to consult first: Herbert Warren Wind or Hiram Walker.

Aside from being a member of golf’s rivalry du jour, Mickelson doesn’t have much in common with either Palmer or Nicklaus.

Off the course, it’s Woods, who like Arnie before him, drives the game financially and commercially.

And on the course, the last time we checked, the leader board still reads Tiger 10, Phil 3. Woods, like Arnie, was the entrenched titan when Mickelson, nobody’s Nicklaus, started behaving like a player and not a pushover in the Slams. And while Phil might have the fleshy frame of early Nicklaus (see “Fat Jack”), Mickelson is no cherubic collegiate-come-lately newly arrived to challenge the King.

In golf years, as predictable as dog years with the notable exceptions of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, the 35-year-old Mickelson is exiting his prime. The 30-year-old Woods, on the other hand, is just entering his, which time and again has proved to be the seasons between a player’s 30th and 33rd birthdays.

If the golf world is exceptionally lucky, the Tiger vs. Phil rivalry might remain applicable for three or four more seasons. History hasn’t been overly kind to too many major late-bloomers not named Hogan.

And while Mickelson certainly has the skills to equal Palmer’s six-major output, it simply seems a bit presumptuous to start linking him with a legend boasting twice his credentials.

“I don’t think about ultimately, you know, leaving a legacy, if you will,” said Mickelson, who to his credit steered clear of the Arnie vs. Jack nonsense. “I don’t know if it’s good for the game or not, but I love the chance to compete against guys like Tiger, guys like Retief [Goosen] and Ernie [Els], and Vijay [Singh].”

Mickelson’s emergence is clearly good for the game. But it should be enough that three of golf’s “Next Four” now have three majors apiece (Mickelson, Els and Singh) and that all four are headed for the Hall of Fame. In the Tiger Era, the concept of rivals is likely to become a tag-team, by-committee affair. Seen in this light, Tiger as Nicklaus vs. a quartet of Ray Floyds and Lee Trevinos, if you will, Woods trails the “Next Four” by the score of 11 majors to 10.

Three other thoughts struck this space in the wake of last week’s Masters:

First, the world is still waiting for Woods to make a major charge. All 10 of Tiger’s majors have been claimed from the 54-hole pole position, an extreme oddity considering his fearsome status. In an interesting dichotomy, Nicklaus came from behind in the final round in a third of his major victories (six of 18).

Second, in spite of all the early week whining about the added length, Augusta National once again proved immune to the simple powerball label.

Sure, length proved an advantage, but it wasn’t a prerequisite. Consider of the event’s six leaders in driving distance, only Mickelson (No. 3 at 299.25) made the cut. One of the shorter hitters in the field, South Africa’s Tim Clark, finished sole second. And another famed buntmeister, two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal (1994 and 1999), posted the best round of the tournament on Sunday (66) to finish T3 (284).

Speaking of the steely Spaniard, Olazabal’s strong finish at Augusta National combined with his solid showings at the Buick Invitational (T2), Players Championship (7) and BellSouth Classic (T2) makes him a near-points lock for this year’s European Ryder Cup team. The return of Olazabal (15-8-5 Ryder Cup record), who did not qualify for the ‘04 Ryder Cup, definitely strengthens the European roster.

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