Lefty, rivals may regret tugging at Tiger's tail

BY foxsports • November 11, 2009

Bookmakers the world over made Tiger Woods the odds-on favorite to win this week's Australian Masters. No surprise there. As anyone who's backed him or been lucky enough to draw his name in the office calcutta can attest, that's rarely a bad bet. Yet given Woods' form in the final round of a few tournaments recently, the wager might seem a bit optimistic. Or maybe it's based in part on who won't be there: Phil Mickelson. Woods' reputation as a closer has been dented of late, and the left-hander has done most of the whacking. Mickelson clobbered Woods in a head-to-head matchup last week in the final round of the HSBC Champions in China, and came from off the pace in late September to steal the Tour Championship in Atlanta from Woods and final-round leader Kenny Perry. Rather than press his luck on a third continent, though, Mickelson opted to return home and spend most of the next three months looking after his family. Both his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, underwent treatment for breast cancer during the year, and have received favorable outlooks since. One can only speculate what Mickelson's year would have been like without that hardship, but it's worth noting he was arguably the best player in the game both before he took time off in June to help care for Amy, and again as the season winds to a close. Had the back-and-forth between Mickelson and Woods taken place in the middle of the season, or better yet, with something on the line in one or more of the majors, golf would have had a version of the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry it's been clamoring for the past dozen or so years. Instead, the hope becomes they'll pick up in 2010 where they left off. It should surprise no one that the short stick is behind both Mickelson's resurgence and Woods' late-round troubles. A few lessons from putting guru Dave Stockton in early fall made the left-hander rock-solid from close-in, especially down the stretch. Clutch putting has been the bedrock of Woods' success; the only player who's made as many tough putts over the course of a career is the same one Tiger is most often compared to: Nicklaus. Woods certainly made his share this year; no one wins six times on the PGA Tour and posts another 14 top-10 finishes without doing that. It's even more remarkable, considering he started the year coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Still, in the majors - the tournaments that matter most to Woods - he was uncharacteristically shaky, and never moreso than in the final round of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. There, Woods squandered a two-shot lead against unheralded Y.E. Yang, and lost for the first time in a major when leading going into the final round. As much as anything, that singular defeat occasioned talk that it was possible to tug on Superman's cape and get away with it. Even Nicklaus felt compelled to weigh in recently, saying that while he expected Woods would add the five majors needed to surpass his own record of 18 sometime over the next 2-3 years, "he still has to do it, it isn't a given." No, it's not. But as the bookmakers can vouch from experience, you almost never take the under on any bet that involves Woods. For all the talk about lean times, Woods has won four of the last 12 majors - more than Mickelson or any of his peers have won in their careers - and finished runner-up in four others. When he says, "The whole idea is to give yourself a chance in each and every one," it's far from idle talk. We'll have to wait until next season for proof, of course, but the early signs are promising. Woods has made a habit of roaring back whenever a challenger to the throne gets hot, and he's always regarded Mickelson as a special case in the past. Plus, the majors this year feature at least two venues - Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open and St. Andrews for the British - where Woods has played some withering golf in the past. The best rarely lack for motivation, and Woods is no doubt already taking names. During a break in a recent practice round, someone suggested to Tiger that one way to measure how dominant he'd become was that his losing the PGA Championship made more news than Yang winning. Woods surely understood he was being paid a compliment. Competitor that he is, though, Woods couldn't resist pretending it was yet one more slight. "So, you're writing me off, huh?" he teased. Just the opposite. Pencil him in for at least two majors in 2010 and take it to the bank. --- Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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