SAN DIEGO — He gave up the chase long ago, perhaps around the time he discovered greatness could be overwhelmed by genius. And so Phil Mickelson has come to accept his place in the game. That is, he may always be high on the list of history's best golfers, yet forever trail Tiger Woods in his own time.
Mickelson will never win as many majors. He will never dominate the PGA Tour. He will never have the satisfaction of knowing there is not another man walking the planet with talent as rich as his own.
So, yeah, he can live with that, and has for quite some time. But, still, there are moments when pride intrudes. When for one round, one weekend, one tournament, it matters to Mickelson that he stand alone.
This is one of those times.
The U.S. Open begins today with Mickelson and Woods brought together in the pairings by the design of tournament organizers rather than the circumstance of fate. Frankly, fate needed the hint. This is only the second time in the past six years they've been in the same group in a major, and the first time at a U.S. Open since 1999.
That alone should be enough. That should add a jolt to a rivalry that, at times, has had a Nixon-McGovern feel.
But, in this case, there is more. Much more. This is the tournament that has haunted Mickelson more than any other. This is the tournament he gave away in the final moments at Winged Foot in 2006. The one where he has four runnerup finishes and a couple of other shots at victory.
And, now, the U.S. Open has arrived in Mickelson's back yard. The South Course at Torrey Pines is minutes from Mickelson's home, and the place he used to play his high school matches.
"This is a tournament I know and believe I can win. This golf course gives me the best opportunity to do that," Mickelson said. "Winning this tournament would be something that would help define my career."
For Mickelson, 37, the reflection of a career is not to be dismissed lightly. For now, his legacy is somewhere between sensational and sidekick. Put him in another era, and maybe he is considered the best of his generation. Have him compete in a Tiger-less world, and maybe he has several more majors to his name.
But it is his burden to be a maestro of the second fiddle. To have Tiger's superiority measured by how far in the distance Mickelson stands. When he walked into the interview room on Tuesday, the first four questions Mickelson heard were related to Woods.
Closer together or further apart, it doesn't matter. Mickelson, it seems, will forever be weighed in relation to Woods.
Four times in the past eight years, Mickelson has finished second on the PGA Tour's money list. Each time, Woods stood in his way. Coming into this tournament, Woods is No. 1 for 2008. Mickelson — Surprise! — is No. 2.
For the record, Mickelson said it was "awesome" to be paired with Tiger for the first two rounds. For the record, no one is buying it.
"I talked to Phil about it and I can't say he acted like he was too thrilled about it," former U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller said. "But he knows how to play with Tiger, and he wants this championship more than any other he has ever played in."
They have had a couple of memorable showdowns in the past, but Mickelson has beaten Woods in the same pairing only once in the final round. That was the last time they met, at the Deutsche Bank in September.
It was also when Mickelson caused a bit of a stir by suggesting his new coach Butch Harmon — Tiger's former coach — had given him some tips about Woods' strategies in the final round.
It was the latest in a long line of perceived swipes the two have taken at each other. Their relationship has ranged from frosty to cordial, with neither admitting to either extreme.
Woods is everything Mickelson is not. Woods plays the game like a surgeon, everything planned, plotted and precise. Mickelson plays like a circus act, one high-wire performance after another. Woods is regal, keeping the public at a distance. Mickelson is a politician, a one-man autograph machine.
Woods is a workout fanatic and has the buff physique to prove it. Mickelson is a lobster ravioli fanatic and has the puff physique to confirm it.
So, no, a successful showdown against Woods this weekend does not change Mickelson's place in the world. But, maybe, it broadens our perception of who Mickelson is. Maybe it helps us define him for what he has done, instead of what he has failed to do.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]