LA JOLLA, Calif. - The hate is beautiful to see, the reason Tiger-Phil has become the best show in sports. Genuine, uncontainable disdain - and both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, as controlled athletes as you'll find, do their best to bridle it, and still they cannot stop it from seeping out at times in front of 42,000 pairs of prying eyes - has grown so rare in today's buddy-buddy, we're-all-entertainers sports world.
It's become easy to forget how wonderful a game with real loathing behind it can be.
Then, you see Woods be very slow - perhaps purposely slow - to mark his ball on the first green. Suddenly, Mickelson is gesturing at Tiger about the putt and he's getting a glare back that could buckle the knees of even the killer from "No Country for Old Men."
It all ends with one of the most awkward handshakes in sports, as close as golf will ever get to Bill Belichick v. Eric Mangini. Nobody blew anybody off but Tiger reached out, still steely eyed, even as Mickelson was still shaking Adam Scott's hand, forced Phil to give an awkward reach back for a very strong shake. Think these guys would love to leave rope burns on each other?
With the formality over, Woods went into a playful overhand five type shake with Scott, the polar opposite from his ultra-serious, macho one-upmanship with Phil.
Forget the golf. You could put Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the same dinner party and be endlessly entertained.
Mickelson tried to explain away the distance between them throughout the U.S. Open's first round - and you could have nearly fit one of those massive USGA tents in the gap between them on some of those fairway strolls. And Phil wasn't even asked about it.
"I had a great time," Mickelson offered. "We're each in kind of our own alien world out there, though, trying to do our own thing. It's a major on a tough golf course. There's not going to be a lot of conversation that might take place in a regular tour event."
Tiger didn't even bother with some similar explanation that only the half baked or pea brained would swallow. Instead, the only time Tiger talked about Phil is when he all but dismissed the fuss over Mickelson playing without a driver in his bag.
"Well, it's a strong 3-wood," Woods quickly shot back. "It's probably close to 11 degrees, so it's kind of like the old brassie (a pre-20th century club most closely related to a 2-wood). It's not a driver, but it's a very strong 3-wood."
Tiger didn't want to give Phil any credit for any type of imaginative thinking. You could hear it in his voice.
It sounded great. Like sports almost never sounds these days.
While the hate filled the main stage, only joy could be found on the fringes, crammed against the ropes and green gates 10 rows deep in parts, walking inside near the fairway edges with press passes.
You never knew who'd you see from one hole to the next.
There's Dave Krieg, the old Seattle Seahawks quarterback, crouched down near a bunker, giving a running commentary on anything that came to his mind to anyone who wandered by.
"Baseball, yeah that's a tough sport," Krieg snorted. "They got the buffet in the clubhouse. They've got the seventh-inning stretch. And that's one bad pension, too."
Krieg shook his head. Hey, did you see where Tiger's tee shot went?
And what do you do if you just won the LPGA Championship? Apparently, you walk inside the ropes with all the sportswriters and follow Tiger-Phil for 18 holes at Torrey Pines, too. That's what Yani Tseng, the teenage rookie winner of last week's LPGA major, did.
"You can always learn from watching Tiger Woods," Tseng said, smiling.
Damn, can Phil ever get any love?
In truth, for all the talk about San Diego being Phil's hometown - much of it from Phil himself - Tiger clearly drew the louder ovation at the first-tee introductions that played out like prize fight theater. He also collected more calls of encouragement throughout four-plus hours.
But Phil did better than Tiger on the scoreboard for the second straight time they've been locked in a high-profile pairing. Sure, the margin only consisted of one shot, even par compared to one over, and it didn't come close to securing Mickelson a tournament title like the last time in Boston last September.
Still, it's another little confidence boost for Mickelson, more credence for the once ridiculous idea that trading-stars coach Butch Harmon really has given Phil a cleansing textbook on Tiger's subtle on-course intimidation tactics.
On this day, arguably the most anticipated day in the history of the U.S. Open (Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer never had ESPN dialing up the hype 24-7), Woods and Mickelson traded some great shots, if not great rounds.
Woods seemed like he was giving everyone (i.e. Phil) something to think about in this afternoon's second-round rematch when he absolutely crushed a drive on No. 18 that easily left Mickelson and Scott in his fairway dust. And left the Australian with the broken pinky finger chuckling his head at The Ballad Of One Battered Knee.
"Seeing him hit that last drive 360," Scott said, "it wasn't too hard for him."
Of course, then Tiger proceeded to three-putt 18 from a distance he probably hasn't three putted from all year. One for the show?
Craig Smith, the USGA's director of media relations, took a long look at the media horde trailing his association's brilliant dream pairing and could only see a championship Sunday as any comparison. "It's like Sunday at Pebble Beach," Smith said, grinning.
Smith estimated that 225 media members followed Tiger-Phil around. Tiger put it closer to 100. The crowd kept calling out to whoever was there, packing a camera or notebook, "You know there are other golfers." Of course, then nobody in the crowd moved from Tiger-Phil, either.
Oh, beautiful hate, so impossible to turn away from.
June 13, 2008
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Davis Love III, who played the final 57 holes of the Children's Miracle Network Classic without a bogey, finished at 25-under 263 in the season-ending event played at the Walt Disney World Golf Resort in Florida. It has been a long road back for Love, who severely sprained his ankle late last year. After tearing ligaments, he needed surgery, and he's spent much of this year rehabilitating the injury.
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