AKRON, Ohio — Imagine Gotham without Batman and Robin. The Beatles without McCartney and Lennon. Cookouts without hot dogs and hamburgers.
Impossible to comprehend?
Well, then, welcome to the 2014 PGA Tour season, the first since 1995 to be played without its dynamic duo in place, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Whoa? That can’t be, can it? You’re right, it’s not. Of course, the yin and yang of the American golf scene have been present and accounted for this season — but only if you have arrived at the course early or looked well down the list of scores.
In some ways, Saturday’s third round of the Bridgestone Invitational was a microcosm of their seasons, because the each found something to be positive about, even though they only shot 72 (Woods) and 69 (Mickelson).
“I actually smoked it coming home, which was nice,” Woods said, when asked about what has become his nemesis, the driver.
“Today was a good round,” Mickelson said.
No, they weren’t being facetious. It’s a testament to the lowly state of their games that they search for silver lining in a world of clouds, but Lefty, at least, showed he has great perspective. Though he labeled Saturday “a good round,” he was quick to show how his standards may have been lowered a bit. “Good rounds (are) in the mid-60s and I’m barely getting it under par,” he said.
How off-center have Woods and Mickelson been this year? Consider that Bernhard Langer in one PGA Tour tournament (Masters, T-8) has more top 10s than Woods and Mickelson combined. That’s right, Woods and Mickelson are devoid of top 10s. We are fast approaching the one-year anniversary of the last PGA Tour top 10 for both men — Woods was T-2, Mickelson T-6 at The Barclays last August.
Oh, woe is them — and guess what? Neither one seems to be brimming with joy that the season’s final major championship, the PGA, is on the doorstep. While Woods does offer that “I just need more reps . . . because I’m actually getting better the more rounds I’m playing,” it sounded a bit hollow. Now 1 over, he left Firestone CC tied for 36th, but Woods clearly has struggled with his ball-striking this week. He hit just seven greens Saturday, has hit but 30 in 54 holes, and the driver looks like a foreign object in his hands. Woods hit 6 of 14 fairways in Round 3 and has hit just 18 of 42 for three days.
Mickelson, who improved to 3-over 213 and left Firestone in a share of 44th, presented a blunt assessment of his game. Bottom line, if he thought he had made progress at he Scottish Open and Open Championship, the lefthander said he is mistaken.
“I’m not as close as I thought I was,” he said. “I’m definitely identifying a lot of weaknesses. I’ve got a lot of work to do to feel better.”
How scratchy are things right now? Mickelson shrugged and offered what has to be his lowest level of expectations entering a major championship since he arrived on the scene in 1992. Next week’s PGA at Valhalla? “I’m not sure,” Mickelson said. “It would be out of nowhere for me to play well.”
Not exactly the power of positive thinking there, is it?
But the truth is, these are not the best of times for the best of their time, Woods and Mickelson being an impressive 1-2 punch since 1996, the season when their professional rivalry took hold. Since that summer, Woods and Mickelson have combined for 112 wins (79 for Woods, 33 for Mickelson) and 19 major championships. This is 17th season that they have shared the PGA Tour stage and it is likely to be the first one that did not feature a victory by either player. If you think that this 1-2 thing is a media creation, think again; in the Official World Golf Rankings, they have ranked 1-2 for a total of 271 weeks.
Just not now. Not by a long shot. In fact, they are lagging well off the pace by many measures. They have fallen to 10 (Woods) and 13 (Mickelson) in the world order and their FedEx Cup standings is unfathomable (Mickelson 89th, Woods 215th). Ryder Cup points? Mickelson is 11th, two outside the automatic cutoff, but Woods is 70th.
True, much of Woods’ picture is framed by the layoff after his March 31 microdiscectomy, and loyalists might point out that Mickelson was second in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. The truth is, however, this Dynamic Duo have experienced setbacks here and there, but never have they appeared to struggle for so long and so simultaneously as they have in 2014.
What is more confounding about Woods’ plight is the way he has described his recovery period. At the Open Championship just a few weeks ago Woods gushed about how he hit the ball in Round 1, saying, “I was able to recover every day and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive, the more days I played.”
He faded at the Open, of course, and had his worst 72-hole finish in a major (69th). Then after stumbling through 54 holes here, Woods blamed his inability to play golf and lift weights to get stronger to regain his “explosiveness.”
“Right now, you don’t want to do two things at once,” Woods said. “I’m hitting the golf ball (but) still want to burn the candle at both ends by doing fast twitch, explosive lifting. Can’t burn the candle at both ends right now.”
Hard to translate that, but there’s no such mystery to what Mickelson thinks about his situation.
“I’ve got a little work to do on my game,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played well and it’s been more of a struggle than I thought it would be.”
Barring something dramatic at the PGA, Mickelson is unlikely to earn an automatic spot on the upcoming Ryder Cup team. Woods, of course, is miles out of the picture. The last time there was an American Ryder Cup team without either Mickelson or Woods was 1993 at The Belfry.
The captain of that team was Tom Watson. The fact that it very much could be in Watson’s control to captain the Americans without either Mickelson or Woods at Gleneagles adds great intrigue to the current picture.
Just don’t bet on it happening. Dynamic they may not be, but they’re a duo worth the investment.