- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Golf fans have spent the better part of the last decade pining for a major collision between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The game's top players have teased fans with the occasional skirmish at past slams. They played together in the 2001 Masters finale, but David Duval proved to be the primary futile challenger to the Tiger Slam.

Mickelson finished third and runner-up behind Woods in 2002's first two majors, but neither of those events featured a head-to-head Sunday matchup. And the same separation applied to Mickelson's victories at the 2005 PGA Championship and 2006 Masters, where Woods lurked behind Lefty throughout the finale but never charged, finishing tied for fourth and tied for third respectively.

But at some point, a back-nine clash at a major seems inevitable. A total of six green jackets suggest Augusta National is the most likely battleground. And present form provides hope for this week's Masters.

Woods needed only three starts to put an end to any post-operation questions, rallying from five behind Sean O'Hair to claim his 66th PGA title 10 days ago at Bay Hill.

“I felt that the Match Play was a big turning point for me physically,” said Woods, who returned Feb. 25 from a nine-month layoff following reconstructive ACL surgery on his left knee. “My game started coming around [in my second start] at Doral. I started hitting the ball better and better each day and got back my feel for the game each day. I went out and just basically played at Bay Hill. … Now it feels like I never left.”

Mickelson already has two high-profile wins, winning at Riviera and then adding his first WGC title at the CA Championship at Doral.

“I would love to be in the same group as [Tiger] and play together if we are in the final group,” Mickelson said. “I don't think there's a question for [Tiger]. I think he's playing some great golf, and I think he's going to be there. I think that I've been playing some of the best golf of my career, and I believe I'm going to be there, too.”

There are some added spoils this week for Mickelson, who would supplant Woods as world No. 1 by collecting his third green jacket, ending Tiger's run of 200 consecutive weeks atop the rankings.

“Well, everyone out here is striving to be No. 1 in that world ranking,” Mickelson said. “It would be an incredible feat given who is currently No. 1.”

The occasional friction between the two has been well documented over the years. The most recent charge came from Woods' caddie Steve Williams, who ripped Mickelson in newspapers in his native New Zealand in mid-December: “I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player, 'cause I hate the [expletive].”

Woods' silence following the remarks said quite a bit about his relationships with Mickelson and Williams. In his pre-Masters interview Tuesday, Mickelson couldn't resist the chance to poke back when one reporter asked the following loaded question: “Was it more enjoyable when Mike Weir put the jacket on you [2004] or when Tiger did [2006]?”

“Always a wise guy,” Mickelson said with a smile before grabbing the bait. “I do have a picture of [Tiger] sliding that jacket on me. That felt good.”

Interestingly, the layout no longer suits Woods as perfectly as the course he ravaged in 1997 with a record 270 score, nor the incarnation he conquered en route to his fourth Masters victory in 2005. Following that triumph, Augusta National boosted the length of its layout by 150 yards and tightened fairways and sightlines by moving tees and adding stands of mature trees.

The result has been an increased emphasis on Woods' driving accuracy. Exacerbated by foul weather at the last two Masters, the field's average score has ballooned to 74.54 in the last three years. That represents a jump of 0.67 strokes a round relative to the period from 1997 to 2005. While Woods still boasts a far better stroke average than the field on the new-look Augusta National (71.50), that average represents a leap of 1.17 strokes a round relative to Tiger's dominance from 1997 to 2005.

So while the course has gotten harder for everybody, Woods' stroke average has suffered nearly twice as much as that of the overall field. The gap between Woods and the rest of golf is narrowing.

“If you just look at the landscape of the tour in 1996, when I came out here, versus here in 2009, there are a lot more guys with a chance to win each and every week,” Woods said. “The game is getting closer and closer together. It just makes it harder to win.”

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