Tiger Woods is looking up in envy at Phil Mickelson these days, which means everything we used to know about major tournament golf has flipped inside out.
The born winner is losing.
The jinxes are getting junked.
The flighty, approachable second fiddle is overshadowing the dour legend.
First, let’s be clear: If we’re talking about all-time credentials, Woods’ total of 14 major victories still and always dwarfs his peers, including Mickelson.
But Mickelson’s monumental British Open victory on Sunday, climaxing with an instant-classic final-round 66 and coupled with Woods’ floundering 74, was more than enough to re-edit the usual golf narratives.
It’s the way history works when the major players are intimately involved and the ground seems to move with each stroke.
To put a number to it, this victory gives Mickelson five career majors – all since April 2004 – and in that same span, Woods has won six.
It also gives Mickelson two majors in the last four calendar years; Woods has won none in the last five.
Of course, Woods has continued to win tour events over the last few years, but not majors, which are his and everybody’s measurement for greatness.
And it’s more than just numbers, of course.
Mickelson, 43, is five-and-a-half years older than Woods, but since the full-scale arrival of Woods in 1997, Mickelson has mostly served as a supporting player and regularly beaten antagonist.
Woods always was the chosen one: The dramatic game plus the winning mentality plus the determination to conquer Nicklaus’ major record.
Mickelson was the one with almost as much talent – and much more easygoing charm. But he lacked some essential piece that seemed to keep him from cashing in reliably and to keep him far behind Woods.
As ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi put it to Mickelson minutes after the conclusion of his round Sunday, Mickelson has had a love-hate relation- ship with links golf.
“And that relationship is minute-to-minute,” Mickelson wisecracked.
Mickelson has had titanic missed opportunities mostly at the U.S. Open, where he has finished second a record six times (including this year).
But he also had never been considered a true contender for the British Open.
That is, until this year and especially until Sunday, when Mickelson started the day five shots behind third-round leader Lee Westwood and three behind Woods.
Mickelson hung around on his front nine, then exploded with four birdies in his last six holes.
So Mickelson (who has yet to win the U.S. Open) became the fourth player since 1980 to win three of the four majors, joining Woods, Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
Mickelson has rewritten his career epitaph more thoroughly and more positively than any later-stage athlete I can remember, with the possible exceptions of John Elway and Andre Agassi.
Things have changed. Career trajectories have crossed.
Woods used to be the model for everyone, and now Mickelson is the loose and brilliant late-career model for Woods, whether Woods wants to admit it or not.
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