OK, so the U.S. Open doesn't count because Tiger Woods hadn't played a competitive round in nine weeks before teeing it up on an extremely difficult Winged Foot course. And the British Open doesn't count because Phil Mickelson's game doesn't travel well across the Atlantic Ocean. So it's this week at Medinah in the PGA Championship that the Lefty-Tiger rivalry truly resumes. This is where we'll get a better sense of whether we have No. 1 and No. 1a or whether the chasm between Woods and the rest of the pack has re-emerged in all its gaping glory.
This also could be the week in which we can assess more fully the psychic damage inflicted on Mickelson by his "I am such an idiot" finish at Winged Foot. Certainly, if the numbers since then are to be believed, both Woods and Mickelson came out of the U.S. Open as changed players. Woods has finished tied for second, first and first in his three events since then. Mickelson went T-66 and T-22 and missed the cut.
On the surface, it seems as though missing the cut in a major for the first time as a professional has motivated Woods. Also, it appears as if we have an answer to the question of how the death of his father will affect Tiger: He will keep winning to honor Earl and perhaps even return to the level of domination he achieved in that remarkable run from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 U.S. Open, when he won seven of the 11 majors played. We'll gain added insight into that situation this week at Medinah.
Also on the surface, it seems as if the double-bogey finish by Mickelson at the U.S. Open might have left deeper scars than originally thought. Surely, when a par would win the tournament and a mere bogey would get you into a playoff, to make double is one mere stroke away from a collapse of Van de Velde-ian proportions. The poor swing off the 18th tee, and the questionable decision to use driver, was made to look almost brilliant by the unexplainable decision not to pitch back to the fairway from the rough with the second shot and instead hit a shot that brought double-bogey very much into the equation. We'll gain added insight into that situation this week.
Woods and Mickelson are not the only players for whom the PGA Championship is an appropriate place to put grades on a report card. It was at Medinah in 1999 that then-19-year-old Sergio Garcia went hopping and skipping and running down the 16th fairway after an improbable shot hit with eyes closed from behind a tree onto the green. In the bat of an eye, it seemed as if Woods, then 23, had become an old man and El Nino was the face of tomorrow. But seven years later, Woods is a Tiger and Sergio has achieved more as a beer salesman than he has on the golf course.
Who would have thought that day at Medinah, when Sergio gave Tiger the scare of his life, that Garcia still would not have won a major championship seven years later? In fact, that second-place finish in the 1999 PGA Championship is the best he has done in a major, with a tie for third in last year's U.S. Open being next best. Garcia's run in this year's majors has been far from impressive; he finished 46th at The Masters and missed the cut at Winged Foot before finishing T-5 in the British Open when he spit the bit on Sunday and closed with a 73 to fall from contender to pretender.
It's difficult to say that, at the age of 26, Sergio is nearing put-up-or-shut-up time, so let's just put it this way: At the age of 26, Sergio is nearing put-up-or-shut-up time. Although it is true that Mickelson was in his 30s before he figured out how to win a major, Phil's problems were more easily correctable. He just needed to learn some course management skills. Despite the fact that the U.S. Open gave ample evidence that Lefty needs a refresher course, Mickelson did learn better patience and better planning. What's keeping Garcia from winning a major is scarier (and more difficult to fix): his putter.
Anytime you see a young player struggling with his putter, it has to be cause for concern. If you have problems on the greens early on, they most likely are going to stay throughout your career. That said, being an erratic putter does not necessarily remove you from major championship contention (see Vijay Singh), but it does make it a lot more difficult. Let's not forget that the two best pressure putters in the history of golf -- Woods and Jack Nicklaus -- have, along with Walter Hagen, won the most professional major championships. And let's not forget that Garcia is 178th on the PGA Tour in total putts per round this year and 164th in putts per green in regulation. That ain't gonna get it done.
All this should set the stage for a pretty compelling PGA Championship. Is Tiger truly dominant once again? Is he embarking on another of those amazing runs we saw back at the turn of the century? What will Phil do next? Will the Wigout at Winged Foot leave permanent injury? And can Sergio recapture the energy and promise he teased us with seven years ago at Medinah? Or will we still be wondering seven years from now why Garcia has never won a major. It should all make for a fascinating tournament.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.