Opportunity knocks for Lefty at Sawgrass
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The news that Phil Mickelson can rise to No. 1 in the world is only surprising in that he's never made it to that lofty perch.
For all Lefty has accomplished in the game -- 38 PGA Tour victories, including four major championships -- he's never ascended to the top spot, mainly because of a certain someone who has been there for an astounding 598 weeks in his career.
Tiger Woods has stolen a lot of glory from others, and it is impossible to know how much better Mickelson's career might look if Tiger had never come along.
Perhaps this puts it in better perspective: In the 24-year history of the Official World Golf Ranking, only 12 players have held the top spot, including Ian Woosnam (50 weeks) and Tom Lehman (one week).
Their combined victories on both the PGA and European tours don't equal Mickelson's total, and they combined to win half the number of majors.
Timing is obviously a big factor, and Mickelson's has not been the best. He managed to turn pro four years before Woods and accumulated nine PGA Tour victories before Tiger got his first. But he's never led the money list, never been player of the year, never posted the lowest scoring average.
So this week's Players Championship offers another opportunity. A Mickelson victory coupled with a Woods finish outside of the top-5 would push Lefty to the top.
"It's every player's goal and intent to strive to be recognized as the No. 1 player in the world relative to the rankings," Mickelson said. "It's certainly something that I have been striving for but have not achieved yet. And so it would mean a lot to me.
"But for me to accomplish that, I can't focus on that. I've got to go out and get ready to play this golf course because it's not an easy challenge, and for me to have a chance to achieve No. 1, I've got to win. So I've got a lot of work ahead."
For what it's worth, Mickelson could have moved to No. 1 at the Players a year ago had certain circumstances occurred, including a victory by him; he tied for 55th.
"I've had it happen before, Double D and Vijay," Woods said. "I've had it happen before, and the whole idea to be No. 1 and to continue being No. 1 ... you have to continue to win golf tournaments. And I haven't done that in a while. I haven't played in a while."
The Players Championship debate
For years, the PGA Tour went overboard pushing its signature event as the fifth major championship. Since the tournament moved to May in 2007, however, the tour seems content to let it stand on its own as a premier event with an excellent field. A good move.
Still, the debate about where it stands in the golf hierarchy continues, and Lee Westwood last week suggested it doesn't rank any better than eighth.
The Englishman said he puts the World Golf Championship events ahead of the Players, and for someone who is not a member of the PGA Tour, that probably makes sense. The WGCs are limited field events with top-heavy fields that count on the European Tour as well. The Players Championship is strictly a PGA Tour event.
And yet, it would be hard to place it behind the WGCs. First, there is no comparison in field strength. The Players has a full field. The WGCs also don't have a cut, which makes them more of a money grab and easier for players to put it on cruise control.
The Players has had its detractors over the years, and you can argue the merits of the Stadium Course. But the fact it returns to such a famous -- or infamous -- venue each year helps make the tournament what it is.
"I would say I think this event is much bigger," said Tiger Woods, who has a single Players Championship title on his résumé and 16 WGC titles. "The field is so much deeper. Generally you probably get, what, 95 out of the top 100 players in the world each and every year. And you don't really get that in all the World Golf Championships. Usually the cutoff is around 50. This field is so much deeper, and I think it's played on a much more difficult golf course."
Harig's head-scratcher of the week
Phil Mickelson has been known to speak his mind, especially if he has an agenda, such as in the conforming grooves controversy earlier this year.
But it was difficult to decipher his motives over the weekend at Quail Hollow where he went out of his way to criticize the greens.
"For as beautifully designed as this golf course is from tee to green, the greens are some of the worst designed greens that we have on tour, and 18 is one of them," Mickelson said. "I would say 18 is the worst on tour, except it's not the worst on this golf course, 12 is, and we have some ridiculous putts here that you just can't keep on."
Mickelson had a long birdie putt on the 18th hole on Saturday that he did not even attempt to make, aiming well to the right of the hole. In fact, he didn't even have his caddie tend the pin, so sure was Mickelson that he'd be going nowhere near it.
Lefty is certainly entitled to his opinion, and the greens at Quail Hollow are severe, but it still seems puzzling that Mickelson would go to such extremes to call them out. Nobody else was complaining. The winning score was 15 under par. Rory McIlory shot a final-round 62. Phil shot 68 to finish second.
Perhaps his beef was with the way the course was set up and where some of the pins were positioned.
Quail Hollow remains one of the most popular events on tour, and Mickelson lauded the rest of the course. Quail Hollow is discussing the possibility of getting involved in hosting either a future PGA Championship or Ryder Cup.
So you want to play ...
... TPC Sawgrass. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is now in its 29th year as home to the Players Championship at PGA Tour headquarters. The course is part of a Marriott resort and typically requires an overnight stay to play the course, although at various times of the year there is access to the venue for outside play.
The green fee for a single player on the Stadium Course, for example, is $375. But there are numerous rates and stay and play packages available and some include rounds on the nearby Valley Course, which hosts a Nationwide Tour event.
The Stadium Course has evolved into one of the most famous in the world, due mostly to the controversial 17th hole island green and because the world's best have been coming here for years.
It didn't start out that way. Designer Pete Dye was initially panned when the tournament was played at the venue for the first time in 1982. But over time, and with adjustments, it has evolved into a well-respected course.
The tournament dates to 1974, when it moved to different venues starting with Atlanta Athletic Club, where Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural. After going to Colonial and Inverrary, the event moved to Sawgrass Country Club -- across the street from the TPC complex -- in 1977 and stayed there through 1981.
For more information, visit www.tpc.com/sawgrass.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies and Bogeys
1. Rory McIlroy. You could not ask for a better coming out party. Making the cut on the number; shooting 66 to get into contention; then setting a course record with a 62 to blow past the field and win his first PGA Tour event on the eve of his 21st birthday.
2. Ai Miyazato. The Japanese star is living up to her hype at age 24 and already has three victories in just five events this year on the LPGA Tour.
3. Phil Mickelson. On any other Sunday, a final-round 68 wins the tournament. Still, second after winning the Masters is pretty good. And Phil is now in position to take over the No. 1 ranking, which would be a first in his career.
1. Tiger Woods. Nobody should be surprised that the game's No. 1 player is struggling after a lengthy layoff. But few would have expected the ugliness of his play at Quail Hollow, where Woods struggled to break 80 in the second round on his way to just the sixth missed cut of his career.
2. Davis Love III. He quietly sneaked into contention over the weekend at Quail Hollow, then just as quietly fell away, never making a move Sunday despite being just two shots out of the lead. Love shot 76.
3. Anthony Kim. His thumb has been killing him, and what a shame. Kim has played some excellent golf recently, including his victory in Houston, but now has withdrawn from the Players because of the thumb injury.
• When Tiger Woods finished eighth at the Players last year, it was his first top 10 at the event since winning in 2001.
He has four top-10s in 12 starts, the fewest of any event in which he has made at least 12 starts. It was also the longest drought between top-10s at a single event in his career.
• Since Woods turned pro in 1996, he has missed six cuts on the PGA Tour. The next fewest in that span (minimum of 100 events) is 25 by Ernie Els.
• Woods' missed cut at Quail Hollow came by eight strokes, the widest margin of his career. The previous worst was three, at the 2005 Disney tournament and 2006 U.S. Open.
• Jay and Bill Haas will become the first father/son combination to compete in the same Players Championship. Jay got into the field by winning last year's Senior Players Championship. Bill will be making his fourth start in the tournament.
• Darren Clarke figured he'd missed the cut at the Spanish Open last week, so he left to return to his home outside of London. Then he realized he was in and had to scurry to get back. Clarke chartered a plane, then had to drive two hours back to the course. He eventually finished 30th.
• Rickie Fowler finished sixth at Quail Hollow, his fourth top-10 of the year and sixth in 15 starts as a pro.
"It might be a little harsh, but I really believe he needs to, every night, watch the U.S. Open in the year 2000 at Pebble and just copy that swing and forget the [Hank] Haney stuff. I mean, that was the best golf anybody has ever played in history.
"That's something he can copy, the tempo, the position at the top of the backswing, the follow-through position -- he's in all these awkward follow through positions and the club is stressed at the top of the backswing and it used to be quiet.
"His tempo was much better then and he should literally say, I am turning back the clock and I am not going to think of anything and I can remember what I was working on then.''
-- NBC analyst Johnny Miller, in a conference call prior to the Players Championship, discussing Tiger Woods.
Catching up with the '09 champ
Henrik Stenson entered the final round a year ago five strokes behind Alex Cjeka and matched the low round of the day with a 6-under-par 66 to win by a stroke over Ian Poulter. It was his second PGA Tour victory -- his other came at the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play -- to go along with eight international victories.
Because Stenson was not a PGA Tour member during the 2009 season, he was not eligible to earn FedEx Cup points. On the strength of his victory and three other top-10s, he would have qualified for the playoffs.
Stenson is a PGA Tour member this year, but has struggled in four events, missing the cut at the Masters while his best stroke-play finish was a tie for 37th at the WGC-CA Championship. He has had two top-10s on the European Tour, the latest a tie for eighth at the Volvo China Open.
The Players Championship picks
Horse for the Course. Jim Furyk. He's an obvious pick every year because he lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and has tons of experience on the Stadium Course. But Furyk has had mixed results, with just three top-5 finishes in 14 starts.
Birdie Buster. Rory McIlory. How else do you describe the man from Northern Ireland, who celebrated his 21st birthday Tuesday after shooting 62 on Sunday to win the Quail Hollow Championship? It was an amazing finish that saw him make five straight 3s to end his round.
Super Sleeper. Sergio Garcia. Perhaps the Players Championship will spark a resurgence in Garcia, who won here two years ago but has no finish this year on the PGA Tour better than a tie for 37th in a stroke-play event.
Winner. Lee Westwood. The Englishman doesn't have a particularly stellar record at the Players, but in keeping with the European theme of recent years -- Garcia, Stenson -- he claims this one.