Tiger, Lefty sharing PGA spotlight

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Their names have been linked for the better part of two decades, even if they have not been rivals in the true sense of the word. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have gone about their business of acquiring golf's impressive hardware, almost independently.

Only rarely have one of the two icons achieved their success at the expense of the other, but here they are again, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, and who would have seen that coming as recently as two years ago?

Woods regained the No. 1 ranking earlier this year when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and has built a substantial lead; Mickelson moved to No. 2 for the first time in more than two years after his impressive victory at the Open Championship three weeks ago.

Now they are set to begin play in the 95th PGA Championship -- at opposite ends of the draw, of course -- at Oak Hill Country Club. Both are very much viewed as the top contenders for the year's fourth major championship, even if there are a slew of other players who could be holding the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday night.

"Certainly my record doesn't stand up to what he's done in the game," Mickelson said. "It's just incredible what he's accomplished with the number of wins, the number of majors and the consistency that he's shown throughout his career.

"But in the last five or six years, I've had some pretty good success head-to-head and I feel like he brings out the best golf in me. He's a great motivator for me. He's helped me work hard. He's helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level year-in, year-out, and I've loved competing against him.

"He's really brought the best out of me, especially when we've been paired together, and I hope that we are able to play together for many more years."

The mini tale of the tape:

Woods, 37, has 79 PGA Tour victories, including 14 major championships and 18 World Golf Championships, and has been ranked No. 1 longer than any player in history, a whopping 643 weeks and counting.

Mickelson, 43, has 42 PGA Tour victories, including five major championships and two World Golf Championships, and has never been ranked No. 1.

At the moment, Mickelson trails Woods in the world rankings by the same margin that Mickelson has over No. 35 Rickie Fowler.

As recently as two years ago, Woods, coming off an injury that kept him from playing for the better part of two months, missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club with rounds of 77-73 and was ranked 30th in the world.

Mickelson had tied for second at the Open Championship in 2011 and won earlier in the year at the Shell Houston Open but had slipped to No. 6 in the world after numerous chances to finally get to No. 1 during Woods' absence.

It is true that Mickelson has had a good deal of success in recent years against Woods, including last year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where Lefty shot a final-round 64 to Woods' 75 in the second-to-last group to win his 40th PGA Tour title. Since Woods won his last major title in 2008, Mickelson has captured two -- the 2010 Masters and the recent Open Championship.

Ten years ago, when the PGA Championship was played here at Oak Hill, both Woods and Mickelson were in the top 10 in the world -- the only players from that list who remain in the top 10 today.

"I've played with both of them and hung out with both of them and they are just so different in every way," said Hunter Mahan, who was in the final group of each of the last two major championships. "I don't know of a common thing other than they love to compete when they play golf. How they go about it is so different, but they both get it done and they get it done in a high way, and every tournament they are a threat to win.

"Especially right now with those two guys, I think every time they stepped it up, it seems like in the last month, they've won. It's pretty impressive to see that their longevity is continuing."

It is no secret that Woods and Mickelson are not best buddies, and who is to say they should be? There appears to be a strong mutual respect, and a letting down of the guard during U.S. team competitions in which Woods and Mickelson have been on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams together dating to 1997. The lone time they weren't teammates was 2008, when Woods missed the Ryder Cup because of injury.

To that end, they've rarely gone head-to-head in major championships. Only nine times have they been paired together in majors, and just twice in the final round -- Woods won the 2001 Masters, shooting 68 to Mickelson's 70 the last day. The other time was at the 2009 Masters, where Mickelson was fifth and Woods tied for sixth.

Woods is coming off an impressive win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he shot a second-round 61 to take a 7-stroke lead after 36 holes and never relinquished it.

"I think that having Tiger win last week is great, because I can't remember the last time somebody won the week before a major and then went on and won," Mickelson said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Mickelson, of course, won the Scottish Open last month before winning the Open Championship the following week.

"Having him back, having him play well, having him win like he's won this year is great for the game of golf," Mickelson said. "And the work he's been doing with [swing coach] Sean Foley has been noticeable and been paying off and he's not having the shots that he's had for a few years. He's playing solid and he played great last week. I think it's great for the game to have him back playing well."

As is typically the case, Woods and Mickelson are not playing on the same side of the draw, lessening their chances to be grouped together on the weekend -- unless they shoot the exact same scores and there is some separation. (Woods plays Thursday morning with Keegan Bradley and Davis Love III; Mickelson is grouped in the afternoon with Adam Scott and Justin Rose.)

Could there be a final-round showdown between the two? Frankly, it is a lot to ask. It doesn't happen very often, no matter who holds the top spots in the rankings.

"It's pretty tough in golf to have rivalries," Mahan said. "With the depths of field and the quality of players, it's hard to have two guys battle it out. Golf is not like that. There's just too many good players."

"We've battled and we've gone head-to-head quite a few times, but not as much as people might think," Woods said.

Dating to 1997, Woods and Mickelson have been grouped together just 32 times -- including a World Golf Championship event in China -- with Woods coming out on top in those head-to-head matchups 15-13-4. Woods got the best of Mickelson the last two times they were grouped during the first two rounds of the 2012 U.S. Open, but Mickelson had shot the better score in eight of the previous 14 matchups.

It is a long way until Sunday, a long shot for a possible showdown between two veteran, accomplished players who are back to the positions they held for so long.

But there is nothing wrong with dreaming about such a scenario, or even simply hoping they are both in contention. For all their time together atop the world rankings, a Sunday showdown in a major would be a rare and welcome occurrence.