Mickelson's ouster a sign of changing times

REUTERS Phil Mickelson reacts after a missed putt on the sixth hole in the second round, which turned out to be his last of this year's Masters.
REUTERS Phil Mickelson reacts after a missed putt on the sixth hole in the second round, which turned out to be his last of this year's Masters.
Posted: April 14, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Little Amy Mickelson stood on her tiptoes to reach up and hug her husband, Phil. They held the embrace for a few beats, awash in mournful fatalism.

It was as if something died.

Well, it did.

For the first time in 20 years, neither Mickelson nor Tiger Woods will play on the weekend at the Masters. Between them, they won seven of the previous 17 tournaments played at Augusta National, but their bodies are failing them.

With very little pomp, the circumstance atop the golf world has transformed. Quietly, the guard changed.

Tiger and Phil no longer can be considered the sports royalty. Yes, each finished in the top six in two majors last year, with Phil winning the British Open. Tiger won five times last year. Phil won twice on the PGA Tour and once in Scotland.

That was last year.

This week, for the first time since 1997, Phil didn't make the Masters cut.

Tiger didn't even make the trip.

Woods underwent back surgery March 31. His return to competitive golf is unknown; his return to dominance, unlikely.

Mickelson, who battles arthritis and a bad back, withdrew from the Texas Open 2 weeks ago with an oblique injury. He will have a couple of extra days of rest before he plays again, aiming at finally securing the U.S. Open title he so covets. A win at Pinehurst in June would complete his personal career slam.

The way Mickelson played Thursday and yesterday, he would have trouble winning the Boise Open. He finished with three birdies on his last five holes, but a triple bogey on the par-3 12th and a bogey on the par-3 16th left him 12 shots behind leader Bubba Watson and, as it turned out, just outside the cut line. The top 50 golfers, plus ties, as well as any golfer within 10 shots of the lead, make the Masters cut.

"I was looking at the cut line," Mickelson said. "I want to be looking for the leaderboard, but I'm always fighting to make it to the weekend, it seems like."

This is the second time Mickelson missed a cut in his last five starts, but it is the fourth time he didn't finish a tournament in his last eight. In late January, his back forced him to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open, and the oblique injury forced him out at Texas 2 weeks ago, but those injuries are old news, he insisted.

"Physically, I feel great. I haven't had any problems," Mickelson said. "But I'm not really sharp."

Mickelson is best known for carving up courses with his wedges. This week, his wedges butchered both rounds.

On Thursday, he hit two abysmal chips on the par-4 seventh hole for a 7, then hit a wedge into the water on the par-5 15th, which cost him five shots - maybe six, really, since 15 usually is a decent birdie chance.

Yesterday, he went bunker-to-bunker-to-bunker on the par-3 12th hole, his second triple bogey of the tournament.

"There was no sand where I was at" in the front bunker, he said. "I caught the liner of the bunker and bladed it across the green, and the same thing happened on the other side."

Seldom do three-time champions criticize the conditions at Augusta National, but at 3:30 p.m., 43-year-old Mickelson was pretty sure he would be spending today on his couch watching 51-year-old Vijay Singh, 54-year-old Fred Couples, 55-year-old Larry Mize, and 56-year-old Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer.

All of that can mess with a man's mind.

"It will be my punishment," Mickelson said.

As it turned out, Mickelson had a chance to make the cut as late as 3 hours later, but when Thorbjorn Olesen stuck his approach shot close on No. 18, Mickelson's fate was sealed.

He can call Tiger to commiserate.

Hundreds of patrons walked to and from the clubhouse on walkways throhgh the first and ninth fairways. Not one wore a "TW" hat. Last year, the roars and the hats were as common as pimento-and-cheese sandwiches.

Occasionally, there was a big cheer . . . but no Tiger roars.

"What is it out here? Tuesday?" asked one patron, a Los Angeleno making his eighth straight trip to Augusta.

"It was louder here Sunday at the Drive, Chip and Putt," said his friend, who attended the kids' event 6 days ago.

A veteran PGA Tour caddie who is a friend of theirs told them that, without Tiger, "It hasn't felt the same yet."

The golf world better not fight that feeling anymore.

Fortunately, the game is in good shape.

For now, the crown belongs to Adam Scott, the defending Masters champion. Rory McElroy, 24, and Jordan Spieth, 20, are chief young princes in his court, and golf has never been as strong or vibrant worldwide. All of them looked up to Tiger; early on, it seemed as if Scott wanted to slip into his skin.

But pages must turn, and golf's next chapter could read wonderfully. International stars Nick Faldo and Greg Norman certainly did the game no harm when Jack and Arnie's time passed.

There might never be another Tiger.

Scott might not turn out to be the next Phil.

But, really, there was never another Jack, or Arnie, or even Gary Player.

By the time their bodies finally collapse, Tiger and Phil might win a major or two, or more. They can spend their seasons more carefully preparing to peak four times, then scurry home to practice and to parent.

But these are golfers with 102 non-major Tour wins between them in a little more than 2 decades. Jack and Arnie had 110, but did so before golf's globalization and integration, and did so over 30 years.

Since Mickelson's Masters win in 2004, they defined each other by their differences: hair and hats, fit or fat, grin or grimace, and, yes, the color of their skin. There was inconsistency of Phil's brilliance and the inevitability of Tiger's excellence.

The only thing that seems inevitable now is their continued decline.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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