- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — Tiger Woods lingered for a minute or two after yesterday’s press conference, answering questions for reporters while Phil Mickelson made his way to the interview chair in his wake.

The bonus session was atypical for Woods, who tends to conduct his interviews the way he plays his golf — with absolute efficiency and unvarying routine.

But yesterday, the world’s No. 1 player paused just long enough for Mickelson to endure several seconds of sitting awkwardly in front of a packed room with its attention entirely focused elsewhere.

The message was as subtle as it was silent:

Mickelson might have recorded a win and two ties for third in his three starts since hiring Woods’ former swing coach, Butch Harmon. And much of the pre-U.S. Open chatter might concern the condition of Lefty’s gimpy right wrist. But when the golf world convenes at a major championship, there is only one overwhelming story line.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson has come to Oakmont in full stride.

Since capturing his third victory of the young season at Wachovia last month, Woods has struggled with a combination of strep throat, suspect putting, spotty driving and an energy sapping schedule that includes impending fatherhood and playing host to next month’s inaugural AT&T; National (July 2-8 at Congressional Country Club). As a result, he has posted pedestrian finishes (tied for 37th at the Players and tied for 15th at Memorial) in consecutive starts for the first time in more than a year.

For his part, Mickelson was betrayed by his right wrist just as he seemed to be finding his stride under Harmon. After tweaking his wrist during an overzealous practice session in Oakmont’s savage rough two weeks ago, Lefty was forced to withdraw from the Memorial and skip his standard major run-up date last week at Memphis.

“I think the cortisone shot is kicking in and the therapy is kicking in because each day I’m able to do more and ask more [of my body],” said Mickelson, who turns 37 on Saturday and who hit balls for 30 minutes and played nine holes on the 7,230-yard, par-70 beast northeast of Pittsburgh. “I should be able to play, no problem. I probably won’t be pain-free like I had hoped, but it should be manageable as long as I don’t aggravate it … or hit it in the rough.”

And there lies the rub.

Though Oakmont’s primary rough has been hacked back in recent days to a marginally playable length, no player is going to thrive out of the thick stuff this week. And few players in the field traditionally spend more time in the weeds than Mickelson and Woods; the world’s top two players rank 163rd and 153rd, respectively, on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy.

Given the fragile state of Mickelson’s wrist, that wildness off the tee is a recipe for either pain or painfully high numbers, depending on whether he takes a wallop or wedge-out approach. Mickelson, who is wearing a nylon brace on his right hand, hasn’t tested the wrist in the rough yet this week and plans on using his hybrid for lower-impact extraction.

But Woods isn’t convinced that Oakmont won’t get the better of even its healthy competitors.

“From what I hear, you should be able to get a 5-iron on the ball from the first cut. That what I hear, but I have yet to experience that,” Woods said doubtfully after watching practice partner Bubba Watson thrash about in the hay yesterday. “Bubba hit the ball in there, and Bubba has a lot more speed than I have, and he hit a couple of shots that probably went 30 feet. … You can have all the strength, speed and technique in the world, and sometimes that grass wins.”

If Oakmont’s nasty rough and pinched fairways are likely to expose the driving-accuracy flaws of both Woods and Mickelson, the course’s savage greens play perfectly to their strengths as golf’s most creative short-game mavens.

“These are by far the most difficult greens I’ve ever played,” Woods said. “I thought Winged Foot was pretty tough. Augusta’s pretty tough. But both golf courses have flat spots. Augusta may have these big slopes, but they have these flat shelves where they usually put the pins. Here, I’m trying to figure out where a flat shelf is.”

But Oakmont is consistently unpleasant even by USGA standards.

Asked whether there was a single “fun” hole on the property, Woods quipped: “The 19th is great, man.”

The dry-witted Woods always has been at his best on humorless golf courses. The more penal the layout, the more valuable Woods’ ultimate asset becomes. Woods’ form might come and go, but his mind never takes a day off.

The same cannot be said for Mickelson.

As is his recent major custom, Mickelson made several trips to Oakmont to develop a detailed playing strategy. Yesterday, he and short game guru Dave Pelz were out on the greens using a Pelz gizmo to determine exact green speeds for every putting surface. But Mickelson’s team, his toys and his gameplan are only as sturdy as his right wrist and his oft-crumbly constitution.

The world is still waiting for a Woods vs. Mickelson major showdown. But given present form and course demands, Oakmont doesn’t seem the stage.

And both players know it.

“Teeing off last year having won the previous two majors I felt like a had a good game plan for Winged Foot to win,” said Mickelson, who nearly won a third straight major before his now infamous 72nd-hole meltdown. “Here, I’ve got to stay a little bit more in the present and not think so much about the results.”

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