Through all the questions and answers in Phil Mickelsonís lengthy pre-British Open press conference the other day, about his game, about the weather, about his career struggles with the tournament, about his family, about everything that could matter, there were 3,307 words spoken.
Not one was ďTiger.Ē
Has Mickelson finally gotten Woods out of his hair after all these years? Maybe so. But if so, itís not necessarily good for Mickelson. Heís in contention at the British after two rounds. He shot 69 Friday, and is 1-under for the tournament. He has been talking about tricking himself into believing.
In 17 tries at the British, he has just one top-10 finish. So he said he wasnít looking back, but rather pretending that he likes this. Heís trying to hit lower, out of the wind and along the ground. Heís trying not to go for too much, as he usually does.
He had 15 pars on Friday, and after his round, he told reporters, ďOne of the things Iím looking forward to is actually the bad weather. I hope that it comes in, and that we get faced with that. Historically, I have not played great in windy conditions and rain, but I welcome the challenge.Ē
Mickelsonís head has always been a great mystery. Unfortunately for him, the wind is not his primary challenge. Woods is. And now, Woods isnít here.
The golf world is trying to move on without Woods at the top. Mickelson isnít going to be able to do it. Thatís what makes this British run so improbable, so exciting.
Itís amazing how much one guy has been defined by another.
Mickelson is 41 now, and his identity in sports history is the weirdest thing: Not Tiger Woods. Thatís who he is. Mickelson has spent a career as The Other Guy to the greatest phenomenon, and maybe the greatest golfer, ever. It has been an impossible task. So while Woodsí game is always identified by what he has done, Mickelsonís is known for what he has not. He just canít win the U.S. Open. He canít get to No. 1. He canít be Tiger.
But seeing him now, after his wife, Amy, and his mother had cancer scares, after he developed psoriatic arthritis, he looks different. We really never know, deeply, what these celebrities are like in their private lives. Mickelson has been portrayed as a guy with a phony gosh-darn image.
But years ago, he was prepared, with a fully detailed escape route, to leave a major championship if Amy went into labor. We know what happened to Woodsí marriage. And yet earlier this week, Mickelson talked about Amy and the kids stepping away from the British to go sightseeing together in Paris.
Mickelsonís motivation has never been to beat Jack Nicklausí spot in history. The truth is, with his family life apparently still strong, and with three Masters titles and a PGA Championship, maybe Mickelson has stood up to Woods a little better than it seems. David Duval couldnít do it. Sergio Garcia couldnít.
Phil Mickelson of the US hits a shot off the 18th tee during the second day of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's golf course Sandwich, England, Friday, July 15, 2011. (AP Photo)
Maybe Mickelsonís run has been incredible.
Heís not perfect. Years ago, after one Masters when he was young, I talked to him under the big tree outside the clubhouse. He had just blown a chance to win his first major, but he stood there with Amy, smiling, happy.
We look down on happy.
Something was definitely missing. And that might be his problem now. Maybe the thing he zeroed in to find some fire was Woods.
And now Woods is gone.
As much as the sports world has measured Mickelson against Woods all these years, itís surprising to find out how much Mickelson has done the same thing.
ďIíve always felt as though Tiger has helped bring out some of my best golf over the years,Ē he said at the U.S. Open. ďAnd even though my record against him may not be the best, itís helped me achieve a higher level that I may not have ever achieved had he not been pushing me.