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As the Masters begins, it's better to be Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods

AUGUSTA, Ga. — All these years later, it is finally permissible to say:

It is better to be Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods.

Oh, sure, there has been the occasional moment in the past when this was also true. When Phil was winning any one of his three green jackets, for example. Or perhaps when Tiger was dodging Florida Highway Patrol investigators.

But by and large, Woods' was the life that fantasies are built around. He had more titles, more money, more acclaim. He had the hotter decade, and the better future.

From the moment Woods won the 1997 Masters at age 21 and vaulted past Mickelson for the first time in the world rankings, he has had the more enviable reputation.

Until, perhaps, now.

When he tees off this afternoon, Mickelson will be the defending Masters champion and an overwhelming favorite to join Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods as the only players with four or more Masters titles.

His victory last week in the Houston Open moved him ahead of Woods in the world rankings (he is No. 3, Woods is No. 7) for the first time in exactly 14 years.

"It would have meant a lot if he was No. 1 at the time I passed him," Mickelson said to a room filled with laughter when asked about it Tuesday. "Yeah, that would have been cool."

Rankings aside, this has become an interesting question to ask:

Given the choice, whose legacy would you choose?

There is no doubt Woods has been, and always will be, the superior golfer. This will be true whether Tiger regains his touch in the coming years or not.

He will finish his career with far more victories, more time spent at No. 1 and probably twice as many major titles as Mickelson.

But the wreck of his personal life and the deterioration of his game in the past 18 months have forever changed the tone of Woods' career. His story will never be told without certain caveats. His history cannot be written without a mention of shortcomings and disappointments.

In a way, Mickelson's story arc is almost completely opposite.

For the longest time, Mickelson was the phenom who could never measure up to Woods. He was one of the finest golfers in history but was criticized for not being a true rival to Tiger.

Yet in recent years, Mickelson has turned into a sentimental favorite. He has become embraceable, if not lovable. He has always been more gracious than Woods, even if some believe his personality is more contrived than authentic.

And just as Woods' personal life will be linked to the car accident that led to revelations of infidelity, Mickel­son's will be remembered for the tears rolling down his cheek when he won the 2010 Masters and hugged his wife, Amy, who was being treated for breast cancer.

"That was a really special event for me, a special week for me and Amy and the family," Mickelson said. "At the time, we were still right in the thick of a lot of things, and it was a really big emotional boost for us. And things have been going so much better.

"We are in such a better place now and are just really excited and appreciative."

During a 30-minute news conference, Mickelson, 40, mixed jokes with personal reflections Tuesday. He seemed completely at ease with his place in the game, and in history.

Not surprisingly, Woods, 35, was less expressive. He has always taken his legacy more seriously and seems hellbent on reclaiming a narrative that has spun out of his control.

And maybe it will be something as shallow as public persona that will ultimately shade our perceptions of these two golfers.

Without prodding, Mickelson went into a passionate soliloquy about the impact of driving down Augusta National's Magnolia Lane every year and looking with awe at the centuries-old trees on either side of the road.

When asked about Magnolia Lane, Woods was less romantic.

"Looking out at the golf course, that's what really gets me fired up," Woods said. "Driving down Magnolia Lane is just looking at some trees, really."

In the end, it will be impossible to tell the story of Mickelson without relating it somehow to Woods. They are linked in a way similar to Nicklaus-Palmer. To Ali-Frazier. To Navratilova-Evert.

And if you judge by statistics alone, Mickelson has not held up his end of the bargain. For most of the past 15 years, he has been a threat to Woods in theory only.

But today, in the back nine of both careers, the gap has tightened, maybe not in sheer ability, but in the way the world looks at each competitor.

On the first day of the greatest golf tournament in the world, it is still good to be Tiger.

But it might be better to be Phil.

As the Masters begins, it's better to be Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:21pm]
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