Lessons learned from the Players

Now we know the answer to several questions everyone was pondering going into The Players Championship.

First off, do Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia play better when Tiger Woods is not in contention? The answer is yes.

Secondly, will Butch Harmon help Mickelson? The answer is yes.

And then there is the third: How many strokes can Woods spot Rory Sabbatini with 54 holes to play and still win? The answer is eight.

In fact, what we found out Sunday is that Tiger can spot the mouth that roared four going into the final 18 and still win. The best coaches will tell you that every tournament, in fact every round of golf, is a learning experience. Maybe what Sabbatini learned at the Players is to shut up. Based on his track record, the answer is not likely. But maybe he will at least learn not to call out Woods.

For those distracted by the NCAA Division III women's lacrosse playoffs last week -- the mighty Dips of Franklin & Marshall College advanced to the Final Four -- Sabbatini, whose on-course demeanor most closely approximates a bar brawl, said going into the Players that Woods wasn't playing well and that he liked his chances against him. Rory was half right: Tiger wasn't playing well. Where Sabbatini erred is that even when Woods struggles Rory has no chance. Sabbatini sounded a little too much like a guy trying to talk himself into being competitive with a player from an entirely different league.

When the dust cleared after the first round, it seemed as if the impossible might be true: Perhaps Sabbatini actually knew what he was talking about.

Rory hung up a tasty little 67 while Woods played his first round in more than four years without a birdie on his way to a 75. Give the Sab Man an eight-stroke lead after Day 1. Even after a humbling 79 on Friday, Rory was two stokes ahead going into the weekend, a margin he stretched to four on Saturday. Then came the money round.

While it is unlikely Tiger needed Rory as a motivation -- pride and competitive fire usually do just fine for Woods -- it is possible he played his butt off despite being out of contention in an effort to gain ground on Sabbitini. Woods made a double bogey on No. 4, then played the final 14 holes 7-under-par as he fashioned a 67 to finish at even-par 288.

Sabbitini shot a not-so-bad 72, but it was capped with a bogey on the last hole that put him at 289. Oops, seems even a very ordinary Tiger is better than Rory.

Sabbitini first came onto the radar screen of most American fans at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic when he was so perturbed by Ben Crane's slow play he completed the 17th hole before Crane reached the green. While no one -- including Crane -- disputes he is a slow player, pretty much no one thought Sabbitini's behavior was justified. His general orneriness was substantiated in a recent poll of tour players by a national magazine in which 25 percent of those questioned listed Sabbatini as their least favorite playing partner.

There are two ways to view Sabbitini. The South African is either a refreshing breath of personality in a sport in which most of the players are about as exciting as an infomercial, or he is a jerk. Actually, there is a third possibility. He could be both. The choice is entirely individual.

It is possible the answer is that while Rory may not be the kind of guy you want to play a round of golf with, he may be the kind you'd like to have a few pints with after the round. And perhaps it would be while having a few pints that it would be appropriate to slip into the conversation that calling out Tiger Woods may not be the smartest thing to do. Actually, Rory would probably say something to tick you off even before you got that far into the conversation.

Now, getting back to the other questions: Do Mickelson and Garcia play better when Woods is not in contention? Yes, they do. But the fact is that probably everyone does. Tiger is just way too scary to have in your rearview mirror. The only guys who stand up well against him are the players on whom there is a lesser burden of expectation, players like Bob May, Rich Beem and Zach Johnson.

But the fact that Mickelson won the Players at 11-under-par 277, two strokes better than Garcia, should not be diminished by the fact that Woods was not in the hunt. Yes, it is true that Harmon will help Mickelson. He is a great coach, and he has helped everyone he has worked with. But there is also this to remember: Mickelson did pretty well under Rick Smith, too.

Lefty has won 31 tournaments, with three of those being major championships.

Granted, he has let some trophies get away from him, most painfully a couple of majors. But Mickelson's biggest problem is simply this: He lives in the Tiger Woods era. As Phil himself said, if he wins another 20 tournaments and another seven majors he will still be short of where Tiger is right now. Is that Mickelson's fault? Absolutely not.

If Mickelson never hits another golf shot, while he is not in the discussion with Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones as the best ever, he is certainly in the extremely small group that comes next. A lot of criticism is leveled at Mickelson's decision-making, but the worst decision affecting his life was not of his doing -- being born in the Tiger Woods era.

Garcia, who closed with a 66 to get a back-door second-place finish at the Players, has taken verbal shots at Woods, as has Sabbatini. Mickelson for the most part has not, the lone exception being his "inferior equipment"
comment a few years back -- and that was a remark that had some sense behind it.

Here is the way Mickelson differs from Garcia and Sabbatini. Phil has won three major championships. Garcia and Sabbatini have combined to win a total of zero. Lefty knows how to graciously respect Woods' accomplishments, because he has accomplished enough to give him that understanding. Sabbatini and Garcia try to let words do what their games have not. What they need to recognize is that they are nowhere near the class of Woods, or Mickelson, for that matter. Tiger and Lefty are 1 and 1-A.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.