Woods brings out best in Mickelson again, now searching for his best

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Phil Mickelson bettered Tiger Woods in head-to-head play Sunday for the fifth time in seven tries.
September 12, 2010
PGA TOUR staff

LEMONT, Ill. -- When it was over, when Tiger Woods rolled in his final par putt on the 18th hole, he shook hands with his playing partner, Phil Mickelson, who then gave Tiger a friendly tap on the left arm. As they walked toward the scorer's trailer, Tiger reciprocated with a friendly tap on Mickelson's back.

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Both players, ranked as the two best in the world, left Cog Hill smiling and feeling optimistic about their respective golf games.

But only one remains alive in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup.

Woods' defense of his FedExCup title ended prematurely but with little drama on a gorgeous Sunday outside Chicago. There was no final-round charge, no big move to climb up the projected FedExCup points list. Instead, Woods shot himself in the foot with three front-nine bogeys before rebounding to shoot a 1-under 70 and finishing tied for 15th.

He suffered elimination much like he suffered through this season -- with expectations unfulfilled but hoping for better days ahead.

"I didn't play well in the beginning of the year and I didn't play well in the middle of the year," Woods said. "Now I'm starting to play well. I'm headed in the right direction."

But that direction will not include a stop in Atlanta.

Unlike Mickelson, who is safely in the field, Woods has failed to qualify for the 30-man field at THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola. He has missed the tournament only two other times in his career, in 2006 and 2008, the latter when he was recovering from knee surgery.

It's a disappointing end to a disappointing season for Woods, who did not win a TOUR event this year while trying to manage his personal life and then a new swing.

While it will be odd to have a TOUR Championship without Woods in the field -- he's either won or finished second in his last four starts at East Lake -- perhaps it is best for him. He'll get an extra week to work on his swing with Sean Foley, and he can start getting his game face on for the Ryder Cup. He also plans to play the HSBC Champions in China in November, along with the JBWere in Australia and his own event, the Chevron World Challenge in early December.

"I was looking forward to only getting a one-week break, but now I've got two," Woods said. "It'll be good because now I can practice with Sean in peace and away from everybody and put some work in and also work on my short game and my putting -- things I have not been able to do out there."

Just how far away is Woods from regaining his dominant form? By his own high standards, plenty of work remains.

He managed just two top-10 finishes in 12 starts, tying for fourth at the Masters and the U.S. Open. His driving accuracy and greens in regulation numbers are not within the top 150 on either list. And in the category he generally dominates -- TOUR scoring average -- he ranks outside the top 30.

But those numbers may be deceiving. Mickelson, for one, thinks Tiger is close to being, well, Tiger again.

"You can tell that his game is like inches from turning because his speed is back and his putter looks great," Mickelson said. "I mean, his game is not far off at all. It looks very close to being right there."

For now, though, the person getting the most out of Tiger's game is Mickelson.

In the last seven times they've been paired together -- dating back three years ago at the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship -- Mickelson has produced the better score on five occasions.

In shooting a 4-under 67 on Sunday, Mickelson closed the all-time score at 11-10-4 (in favor of Woods) in their 25 pairings on TOUR. And if you count last year's World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions -- an unofficial TOUR event -- the record is knotted at 11-11-4.

On Sunday, while Tiger got off to a rotten start with bogeys on three of the first eight holes, Mickelson set a positive tone for his round with birdies on three of the first seven.

"He certainly brings the best out in me," Mickelson said. "That wasn't the case early on. But I feel like he gets the best out of me now."

In fact, Mickelson enjoys the pairings so much that he hopes he and Tiger will be paired in the first and second rounds of some TOUR events instead of waiting for it to happen naturally on the weekend leaderboard.

Of course, the pairing won't be possible at East Lake. Mickelson is in, hoping to defend his TOUR Championship win of a year ago. Woods is out, unable to defend his FedExCup title.

The next time they will share common ground is at the Ryder Cup, where both will be part of a U.S. team hoping to successfully defend its title on foreign soil.

"I think we're both looking forward to going over there," Mickelson said. "I know that we're underdogs. I know how strong the other team is; they're loaded from top to bottom.

"But we've never won over there, and it would mean a lot for us if we were able to."

No doubt it would mean a lot to Woods. Unable to win on his own this year, he'll be more than happy to take one with the team.

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