Backspin: PGA Championship might feature showdown between Woods, Mickelson

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The last time Tiger Woods won by at least six shots the week before a major was in 2007 and the venue was the same as it was this time: Firestone Country Club. He then went on to win the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.

Is there any correlation between then and now as Woods heads to Oak Hill this week?

“No, zero,” said Woods, noting he had a much different golf swing back then.

“Performance‑wise, yeah; scoring‑wise, yeah. But for me it's hard to relate because it's a totally different emotion, and it's Southern Hills versus Oak Hill, two very different golf courses.”

The one thing that will be the same? Woods’ chief rival -- as much as one man can have a rival in golf -- Phil Mickelson.

The last time the PGA was played at Oak Hill, Mickelson had a share of the lead after the first round. This time, he arrives with the Claret Jug in tow and in the way of Woods’ last opportunity to end a five-year winless drought in majors.

“We've had our fair share of head‑to‑head battles,” Woods said. “For me it's been three guys over the course of my career. It's been Vijay (Singh), Phil and Ernie (Els). Those are our big three. It's been fun."

So too will next week be with plenty at stake, including the looming FedExCup Playoffs, Player of the Year honors and general bragging rights for 2013.

“When Phil and I have battled, it's been in big events,” Woods said. “And we've shot some pretty good rounds together and against each other.”

Next week shouldn’t be any different given what has happened the last few weeks with Woods and Mickelson finding spectacular form.

Woods has five wins, including a PLAYERS Championship, while Mickelson has two wins, including a major.

Who has had the better year? It’s a tough question and one that will get answered next week and over the next month. But as far as rivalries go in golf, it doesn’t get better than Tiger vs. Phil.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“Am I disappointed? Absolutely not, nope. 61 is pretty good. I'm not bummed.” -- Tiger Woods after nearly recording his first career 59 in his second round at Firestone last week.

“I said (to Phil Mickelson), ‘I know you're the champion golfer of the year, but I'll teach you how to play Akron if you want.’ And he only responded with, ‘I won there when you were nine years old.’” -- 2012 WGC-Bridgestone champ Keegan Bradley on an exchange he had with Mickelson after Mickelson won The Open Championship the week before.

“It’s unfortunate because it could have been corrected.” -- Blayne Barber, who for the second time in his career, was involved in a high-profile self-disqualification, this time noticing that he’d signed an incorrect scorecard. He was in second place at the time in the Web.com Tour’s Mylan Classic, where a top 5 might have put him in position to crack the top 75 on the money list and earned him a spot in the four-event Finals series later this month.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@lindseyvonn: So proud!!!! #79 #GOAT -- Lindesy Vonn on boyrfriend Tiger Woods’ latest victory.

@Cheyenne_Woods: #79! -- The niece of Tiger Woods whose uncle is now within three of Sam Snead’s all-time wins record.

@ogilviej: Golf next week: Friar's Head, Creek Club, Winged Foot East/West. -- Joe Ogilvie with a pretty good consolation for not being at Oak Hill.

@TwoGlovesGolf: My wife surprised me with front row seats to Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake for early birthday present. -- If there’s a guy on TOUR I wouldn’t have pictured at a Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake concert, Tommy Gainey is high on that list.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. A big reason Gary Woodland won the Reno-Tahoe Open on Sunday was his scrambling. But it goes deeper than his play around the green last week. As one of the longest hitters on the TOUR, Woodland felt he wasn’t getting the results he should, particularly on par 5s. In April, he flew to Chicago and hired Pat Goss, the Northwestern University golf coach and the coach for Luke Donald, to work on his short game. “He felt he needed to improve to get to the next level,” Goss said. “He just needed fundamentals work, some guidance and direction.” Woodland was so determined that when he arrived in Chicago on a 48-degree Chicago day, he worked with Goss at an indoor facility then continued for hours more outside at the Glen Club. “He really wants to be a great player,” Goss continued. “He has an infectious enthusiasm.” Not long after, Woodland led the field in scrambling at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance, where he tied for 16th. A little over a month later he did it again, this time getting his first win in two years. “I gave myself opportunities to get up and down,” said Woodland, who has battled injury and undergone a swing change over the last year-plus. “That was the key. … It just validates what I've been doing. It's been a long process the last couple of years.”

2. How cool it was for Tiger Woods to scoop up his young son Charlie following Sunday’s victory at Firestone? It was the first time the 4-year-old was on hand for a Woods win, something his daughter Sam experienced at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Woods has kept his children away from the spotlight for much of their childhood but this was a neat moment for father and son to revel in. “It was awfully special for me to have him here to witness it because he understands it now,” Woods said. “He understands when I make birdie, when I make par, and he understands the difference.”

3. Phil Mickelson is No. 2 in the world for the first time in three years but even before Woods’ win Sunday he wouldn’t have overtaken Woods and moved to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in his career. Even if Mickelson had won at Firestone, and this week at Oak Hill, Woods would have retained his position. Mickelson didn’t do himself any favors at Firestone, either, finishing in the top 23 for just the second time in 11 starts there.

4. There was some movement in a couple of key races that are winding down. First, Zach Johnson moved from 12th to 10th in the Presidents Cup standings, bumping Dustin Johnson down to 11th. Bubba Watson is another spot back at No. 12. That won’t make things easy on Fred Couples with Billy Horschel at 13 and Jason Dufner 14 with a month to go until the captain’s picks are announced.

5. The other moves? They’re FedExCup related. Martin Kaymer moved from 131st to 119th after tying for ninth at Firestone, while Andres Romero’s runner-up in Reno moved him from 136th to 110th. There are just two more events until the FedExCup Playoffs begin.

6. Stat of the Week I: Woods has now had 10 seasons with at least five wins, breaking his own record of nine and putting him two clear of Sam Snead and three ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan.

7. Stat of the week II: Woods finished the week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational hitting his approach shots to an average distance of 25 feet, 8 inches. It was Woods’ best result in this stat in the ShotLink era at this tournament, which is saying something given his history there.

8. Stat of the Week III: Firestone’s 526-yard par-5 second hole yielded 12 eagles last week. It’s the second consecutive year that players have made a dozen eagles on the hole. The 12 is the second-most ever at the WGC-Bridgestone behind only the 22 recorded there in 2003.

9. Golf Digest came out with its first-ever ranking of “Good Guys” on the PGA TOUR for its September issue. Not surprisingly, Steve Stricker topped the list when the magazine polled tournament directors, volunteers, locker room attendants, players, caddies, media and golf administrators. Rounding out the top 10? Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Joe Durant, Adam Scott, Bo Van Pelt, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson. Snedeker’s wife, Mandy, who I talked to for an upcoming story on the reigning FedExCup champ, still remembers her first date with him when the two were in college. Snedeker showed up with a dozen roses, opened the car door for her and took her to the Melting Pot. “What a southern gentleman,” Mandy remembers thinking. “I was very impressed.” A decade later, not much has changed, which is why Snedeker ranks so high.

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
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Tiger has five wins this season but has struggled in closing out majors. Is it the toughness of the courses, the pressure or the field that’s the culprit? -- Brian Baulch

All of the above and then some. Let’s break it down. At Augusta National, Woods hit the flag stick on the 15th hole of the second round and his ball ricocheted into the water for what was ultimately at least a three-shot swing. Merion was brutally difficult. At Muirfield, Woods struggled with his putting and Phil Mickelson had an amazing final round.

Did Tiger play more drivers in the final round at Firestone to practice for Oak Hill? -- Carlos Mustelier

Not really, Carlos. Both courses are fairly similar, though -- except that Oak Hill is a lot tougher. Unlike The Open Championship, where he didn’t need driver much if at all, Woods will need it plenty this week. He drove it well early in the week and well enough on the weekend at Firestone, where he was 11th in the field in fairways hit, and if he keeps it in play off the tee at Oak Hill, he’ll be in contention again.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email it to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK
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Oak Hill is a brute of a golf course, and until this past June it was the site of Tiger Woods’ highest four-day total in a major as a professional. But Woods comes into this year’s PGA Championship in terrific form, and remember he did the back-to-back thing in 2007, following his victory at Firestone with one at Southern Hills. He’ll have to play and putt better on the weekend of the year’s final major than he has the first three of the year if he’s going to end a five-year drought. But Woods is also way too talented for this streak to drag on forever and now is as good a time as any it seems for it to end. One other player whose chances I really like: Hunter Mahan. He has played in the final Sunday pairing of each of the last two majors. He’s another guy who’s too talented not to win one eventually, so why not now? He’s coming off the birth of his first child and players often talk about fatherhood putting things in perspective and helping take the pressure off. He also drives it as well or better than anybody, which will be big next week.

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