Bill Lyon: Oh, for another pairing like Arnie and Jack

Posted: February 19, 2012

The calendar flips back a generation or so and in your mind's eye you see the two of them striding purposefully down a long, sweeping fairway, a duel in the sun, men intent on a mission, jaws set and eyes locked on a target only they can see, one golden-maned and recently shed of 30 pounds, and the other hitching at his pants and flipping away one of those damnable cigarettes he's trying to quit.

Jack and Arnie.

Arnie and Jack.

They were golf. And vice versa.

Arnie's Army. Jack's Pack.

John William Nicklaus. Arnold Daniel Palmer. Between them, they would combine for 135 PGA Tour victories.

And on those occasions when they were paired, well, Pilgrim, the course would be overrun, the ratings boxcar numbers, and the game was never better.

Now flip ahead a generation, to the second Sunday in February, at wind-lashed, sea-sprayed Pebble Beach, and two men are coming up the 18th, the one with his face wreathed in a triumphant smile, his stride that familiar galump-galump-ain't-life- grand pace, the other the picture of absolute, crushing dejection, a man sliding down a razor blade.

Phil and Tiger.

Tiger and Phil.

Lefty and Eldrick.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. They are golf, and vice versa, and they are the pairing all of us pine for, and they have combined for 111 PGA Tour wins, with, surely, more to come.

Last Sunday's merciless rout was PGA Tour win No. 40 for Phil. He is 41. Tiger is 36 and has 71 full-field wins but is struggling mightily, having been without victory for going on 900 days.

He used to be the ultimate finisher. Sunday belonged to him. He played from a bully pulpit, with the rest of the field all but genuflecting while he crafted another runaway.

Phil remembers. He was on the receiving end of many of those beat-downs.

"I got spanked pretty good," he said.

Ah, but that was then and this is now, and as they walked up the 18th it felt as if they were heading in opposite directions. And, in fact, they were - a pristine, bogey-free 64 by Phil, a messy, clean-up-in-aisle-3, hard-to-believe 75 by Tiger.

Hard to find much in the way of solace when you're losing by 11, and yet Tiger said he could find some encouraging divots in his game. He said he was achingly close to being back, but what was back? All the way back to when he was the most compelling athlete in the world? Or all the way back to playing well for three rounds only to melt on Sundays?

The Tiger of Old, of say 10 years ago, is gone and won't be back.

He has lost the intangible that was more important than any club, and that is the intimidation factor. The rest of them no longer stand in awe. Oh, there is respect - he can still unfurl the occasional huge round or two, after all - and there is gratitude ("Thanks for making us all multimillionaires, Tiger") but they don't go rubber-legged if they're paired with him.

Exhibit A: Phil. Once upon a dreary, frustrating time, Lefty routinely got pummeled. But Phil persevered, and then the pendulum swung back with a smack. In their last five final-round head-to-heads, Phil is 5-0. Somehow he was able to reverse his approach and his attitude.

"I just seem more focused when I play him," he said. "He seems to bring out the best in me."

Phil is a gracious winner, just as he was a gracious loser. There is an aura of humanity about him that resonates with the galleries, that aw-shucks grin that has seen him through dark times.

First his wife, then his mother, fought cancer, and then Phil contracted an arthritic disease that causes excruciating pain.

"Phil and I always said we wanted to grow old together," Amy said last year. "We just didn't know old was going to be 40 and 36."

But they have resisted and persisted.

Phil owned up to "moping" going into the final round at Pebble, sulking about how unsatisfying he was playing. At dinner Saturday night, Amy ran out her best pep talk. Whatever she said, they ought to bottle. By dessert, he was pumped for his Tiger Pairing.

"I don't believe anyone has benefited more for what he's done for the game than myself," Phil said. "I hope he continues to play better and better and I have the chance to play together more in the final rounds."

You're not alone.

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