Mickelson slips on way to No. 1 ranking

Tiger Woods may not have brought much game to Firestone Country Club, but he still knows how to play games.

“Well, if Phil plays the way he’s supposed to this weekend,” said Woods, who’s spent 611 weeks atop the world golf rankings, “Then he’ll be No. 1.”

On the surface, it was an innocuous enough statement.

But those words were filled with deeper meaning.

Will Phil Mickelson play the way he’s supposed to?

Isn’t that always the question with Lefty, who promises so much yet throughout his career hasn’t always delivered on that promise?

Maybe what Woods was subtly hinting at was that there’s a reason no player has ever spent more time inside the top 10 since the advent of the world rankings without having reached the top. It’s astonishing to think that Mickelson’s spent 257 weeks throughout his career at No. 2, twice as long as the next highest, Nick Faldo.

Just as it’s remarkable that a player who may be one of the best dozen or so to have ever played the game has never once won the PGA Tour money title, Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average in a season or Player of the Year honors.

Of course, the argument could be made that Mickelson might have achieved many of these feats had it not been for Woods.

But he doesn’t have that excuse this weekend.

Woods, who hacked his way around in 75 — his worst ever score on Firestone’s South course — is well and truly out of his way.

“Well, I drove it terrible, hit my irons terrible, didn’t putt well, and it added up to a lot,” said Woods, who languished in 78th place in the 80-man field.

Was there anything positive he could take from this week heading into next week’s final major, the PGA at Whistling Straits?

“No, not right now,” he said.

So, then, this is all about Phil.

Mickelson needs to finish inside the top four at the Bridgestone Invitational and have Woods finish outside the top 44 in order to finally wrest the No. 1 ranking away.

That seemed a foregone conclusion after Mickelson, who’d started with 66 and 68, began the third round just one shot off Retief Goosen‘s lead.

The task got easier when the stoic South African triple-bogeyed the opening hole.

But sometimes it’s the straightforward that catches Mickelson.

Put him behind a tree and with water to cross to find the green and his imagination and talent will find a way to get the ball onto the putting surface.

But the routine, the mundane, seems to lose his attention.

For the past three days, Mickelson has been predicting that with soft greens there would be low scores at Firestone. He was right. It’s just that he wasn’t one of those who posted a low number on Saturday.

Mickelson’s feast-or-famine round of 71 saw him drop into a tie-for-tenth after three rounds, four shots off the lead of Ryan Palmer and Sean O’Hair.

He was the only player — other than Goosen — to shoot over par of the top 20. Katsumasa Miyamoto shot 62, Palmer shot 63, Ernie Els and O’Hair both shot 64s.

“I don’t really want to relive it,” Lefty said afterward.

Mickelson was erratic off the tee, hitting only four fairways.

Firestone’s overhanging trees are daunting. Birdies don’t come from them. Just ask Woods, who stands dead last in the field with 15 fairways hit through 54 holes.

“I’m not pleased with the way I’m driving the ball,” Mickelson said. “Off the tee, I was playing for pars most of the day today. And I’m not pleased with my performance around the greens because I let a few shots, three or four shots around the greens today, slide. I’ve got to get better there.”

Mickelson, forever the optimist, said the “good news” was that he was “only four (shots) back”.

I’d hate to know what the bad news was.

He said he wasn’t thinking about getting to No. 1.

Even if everyone else was.