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Somehow, Lefty eclipses Tiger to take spot among the all-time greats

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Phil Mickelson will try to build on his Pebble victory at next week's Northern Trust Open. (Getty Images)  
Phil Mickelson will try to build on his Pebble victory at next week's Northern Trust Open. (Getty Images)  

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The precise time frame remains a bit hazy, but it must have taken place nearly a decade ago, and it was a cheesy exchange that was reflective of the game's two top players' respective places in the game during that era.

A few salivating scribes huddled around Tiger Woods at Disney World, and began the traditional thrust-and-parry process known as the post-round interview, hoping for a few morsels for their stories. At some point, the topic of Woods' luxury yacht came up.

Woods at the time was at his career apex and nearly indomitable -- that's pure fact, not a matter of opinion -- while his longtime foil, Phil Mickelson, was anything but. Mickelson hadn't yet won a major and was perceived by Woods and many others to have largely left his potential unfulfilled.

Given that this tableau was taking place about 10 miles from Woods' residence at the time, most of the audience was friendly and Woods was unusually chatty. At that point in his career, Woods had done little to alienate anybody, had won the wraparound Grand Slam and was as untarnished as brushed aluminum. Back then, the sport hailed Woods as its leading man and dumped barbs on Mickelson, whose crash-and-burn style and occasionally goofy demeanor were easy to ridicule.

Did it myself for years as Woods systematically took Mickelson apart at nearly every turn. So, when it became known that Woods was purchasing a $22-million yacht, I joked to him at Disney that he ought to name it "Lefty."

"Why's that?" Woods said, waiting for the punchline.

"Because Phil basically paid for it," I said.

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Everybody busted out laughing, of course, because the two were as different as the slick, badass James Bond and the bungling, hapless Inspector Clouseau. If Phil got something right, we figured it was almost by accident.

Guess we shouldn't pan the movie or identify the heroes until they roll credits, huh?

With millions watching, Mickelson won the 40th title of his PGA Tour career on Sunday at Pebble Beach, shredding pairing partner Woods by 11 strokes in the final round and making up a six-stroke deficit on the leaders to win by two shots. It was, given the backstory, one of the most impressive six hours of Lefty's career and solidifies his place among the game's giants.

In fact, he cemented it stronger than the faux rock wall along the 18th hole that Pebble Beach erected to keep the Pacific Ocean at bay.

Only eight players have won more U.S. tournaments than has Mickelson, and none of them played in the same era as Woods, who before the Escalade Escapade was good for five victories even in his bad years. In the past quarter-century, only Woods and Nick Faldo have won more majors than Mickelson, who has four, so it's about time we started to venerate Lefty, not ventilate him -- and not just because of his victory totals or newfound ability to beat on Woods head-to-head over the past five years.

This being a golden age of sarcasm and suspicion, experts and analysts are often quick to point out what Mickelson hasn't done: Climb to No. 1 in the world ranking, top the PGA Tour's seasonal money list, claim the Vardon Trophy or be voted the tour's player of the year. All truths.

But at 41, he's been winning tour events since well before he turned professional. In fact, his victory in Tucson 21 years ago remains the last by an amateur on the tour, and he's won at least one tournament for nine straight years, easily the longest active streak. Meanwhile, Woods hasn't won since '09.

For sure, the two will forever be tied, physically and psychologically, as Ruth and Gehrig of their game, wherein the latter never got the full credit he deserved for his performance over the long haul.

Don't get us wrong, Mickelson is no iron horse. Heck, we never know from week to week whether he's even going to make the cut, but the totality of his work has become downright impressive. No question, it's reckless to rate players from different eras, given the changes in equipment, course grooming and player conditioning, but Mickelson has to rank as the second-most influential and impactful player of the past three decades.

He and Woods are the most popular players of the current era. Mickelson was made for television. Sometimes watching him play is like being waterboarded -- he's up, he's down, he breathes, he drowns.

And of course, compared to his nemesis, a few dropped tournament titles aside, Mickelson never sullied his reputation by wrapping anything around a tree, other than the time he broke his leg snow skiing. He will rightly be enshrined into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May as a first-ballot slam dunk.

Though the past two years have been a huge frustration as Mickelson mostly wasted a chance to drop the hammer while Woods was on the shelf -- he'd won one of his past 37 PGA Tour starts before last week -- Lefty was almost giddy about what the future holds after winning his fourth title at Pebble Beach.

"I'm very proud to be in the Hall of Fame, but I also feel as though I want to look ahead," he said. "There will be a time in my career where I'll look back and reflect, but right now I'm looking ahead because I feel like I have the ability to play some of my best golf."

His recent dominance of Woods in eye-to-eye play makes the timing of the induction seem perfect. In fact, if Mickelson could play with Woods every week, he might get to 50 wins by this fall.

When Lefty used to play against Woods, it was like he had Stockholm Syndrome. But in their past 12 pairings, Mickelson had recorded the lower score eight times, tied Tiger in another instance, and won two tournaments as Woods watched.

The Sunday soiree was a complete massacre. As Mickelson made up a six-shot overnight deficit on the leaders in the blistering span of five holes, Woods was raking around three-footers and staring angrily at the ocean. He and Mickelson were two ships passing in broad daylight.

As ever, Mickelson remains one of the game's great ambassadors, a credit to his vocation. On Sunday before the final round, he was spotted in a local eatery, and a kid asked him for an autograph. Mickelson duly complied.

It's a funny thing watching Mickelson sign for fans. He always says thank you afterward, even when fans forget to utter it themselves. He nearly blushed when the restaurant episode and his willingness to embrace fans was noted.

"I appreciate you saying that," Mickelson said. "I mean, I really am truly appreciative that I get to play golf for a living and it's the people that come out and support the game that make it possible.

"So I don't feel like that should be out of the norm. That should be the norm for everybody."

As it relates to us and Phil, it should our norm for him, too.

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