- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008


It’s difficult to decide whether Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson is playing with the greater handicap at Torrey Pines.

The jury is no longer out on El Gato’s knee. Tiger is hurting … and he’s rusty. The world No. 1 made a pair of uncharacteristically sloppy double bogeys (his first two of the season) en route to opening with a wayward 72 on the sprawling leviathan perched on the Pacific coastline.

Aside from the fact that there were no fisticuffs between well-documented pals Tiger and Phil during their showcase pairing Thursday, the good news is that Tiger did some fairly flashy work with the flatstick, rolling in a handful of putts between 15 and 25 feet to parlay a pretty forgettable ball-striking performance into a quite serviceable score.

The bad news is Woods grimaced for several seconds after his final drive and then noticeably limped to player parking shortly thereafter without his customary postround practice session.

“It didn’t feel very good, no,” Woods said of the twinge he experienced on his final drive. “It’s a little sore.”

So instead of heading to the range to work out the kinks in a loose swing that produced some suspect results (eight missed fairways, seven missed greens), Woods headed home to a regimen of ice, whirlpool and anti-inflammatory medication. That’s a pretty nasty 19th hole.

Sure, the 13-time major champion survived his first 18-hole tour since Sunday at the Masters. And his 1-over total keeps him on the cusp of contention at what is likely to be the lowest-scoring Open in recent years. But if he was hurting after 18 holes, how do you think he’s going to feel Sunday morning after playing 54 on his gimpy knee under U.S. Open stress? If he wins this week on one wheel with an improvised swing, he should report directly to Mount Olympus.

Ordinarily, you would say Tiger’s flat tire clears the way for Lefty. Thrice an Open bridesmaid, the world No. 2 has his hometown crowd behind him and as much course knowledge as any player in the field, having played his high school matches at Torrey Pines. But Mickelson, in vintage Lefty fashion, decides to handicap himself.

First, he admits he’s totally changed his pre-major routine this week, clearing his schedule of interviews and autograph signings so he can focus all his energies on the tournament. Good idea, Phil. Here’s a guy who needed 46 Grand Slam starts to find the winning formula. Then after swiping three in the last four years, he decides to try a new recipe this week.

Part of that new recipe involves leaving his driver in the trunk and teeing off exclusively with his 3-wood and hybrid. Hmm. If you don’t understand the approach, neither does Adam Scott (73), the world No. 3 and third wheel in the Open’s marquee grouping.

“I’ve given up trying to figure out Phil,” he said after Thursday’s round. “He brings two drivers to Augusta National and then doesn’t bring any to the longest major in history.”

Lefty’s approach would seem counter-intuitive, but of course he’s got Torrey Pines all figured out. According to Mickelson, the layout’s fairways tighten up a bit after 300 yards, so he doesn’t want his drives running into trouble.

Never mind that this week’s fairway widths are the most generous in decades at a U.S. Open. Never mind that the rough has been universally described by the players as far less penal than in recent years. Never mind that Phil himself explained Tuesday how the moist air and sea-level elevation make the effective length of the layout closer to 7,800 yards than the posted 7,643. Lefty has a game plan.

“I don’t think I ever have [not carried a driver in an event],” Mickelson said after opening with a 71. “I know [short-game guru Dave] Pelz has been wanting me to play a tournament without hitting driver, hitting 3-woods all the way through. So here you are, Dave.”

As a result, Mickelson is carrying no driver and four wedges at Torrey Pines. So how did his master strategy work out Thursday? Well, like Woods, Mickelson hit six fairways.

Said Mickelson: “When I made some terrible swings and hit it in the rough, it kind of defeats the game plan because now I’m short and crooked.”

Yeah, he’s bent all right. In one of the many broadcast features focused on Mickelson’s return to San Diego this week, it was revealed that Lefty had to wear a football helmet when he was a child because he had an unfortunate habit of butting his head into things.

Frankly, that explains an awful lot.

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