By Steve Silverman
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The two dominant stars of the pro golf tour have long been Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
However, they both go into this weekend’s Open Championship playing far from their best golf.
Woods comes into the British Open just a few months removed from back surgery, and he has played just two competitive rounds in the last four months. The Hoylake course in England has changed quite a bit from the track that he won his last British Open at in 2006.
When Woods won that tournament, he was a green-hitting machine. Instead of taking out his driver and bombing the ball down the fairway, he played almost exclusively with his irons, finding the short grass nearly every time and putting like a demon.
He would like to have a repeat performance, but he knows in his heart that he is a long way from that form. Tiger is never going to admit that he doesn’t have a chance to contend in a major tournament, but there’s no way that he has a realistic opportunity to beat the best golfers in the world because his swing has changed and he’s still trying to figure it out.
When Tiger and his pals went to Hoylake in ’06, it was a hard, sun-baked course that allowed golfers to get a lot of roll off their tee shots and approaches. That’s no longer the case. It’s a longer and softer course this time around, and Tiger is not going to be able to leave his driver in his bag this time around. If he’s going to get decent distance, he’s going to have to take the big club out and go for it.
That was a problem for him before his back surgery. A close look at Woods’ game revealed that his driver was no longer a precise instrument of destruction. Tiger had been showing a tendency to pull his driver in the last half of the 2013 golf season, and then he tried to compensate for that deficiency.
As a result, he started blocking it off to the right.
When he played at Congressional a few weeks ago, Tiger hit the ball fairly well off the tee. It was his approach shots and his putting that let him down. That’s a function of rust, and it’s not likely to be solved after playing a couple of practice rounds this week.
Mickelson has been Tiger’s greatest rival over the years, but the two have had precious few duels when both have been at their best.
These two are not Jack and Arnie battling it out in the U.S. Open. However, it was just last year that Mickelson went across the Atlantic and recorded the most unexpected triumph of his career when he won the Claret Jug and his first British Open at Muirfield.
Many thought that his triumph on the links course would propel Mickelson to a win at the PGA Championship and a strong showing in the FedEx Cup at the end of the season.
It didn’t happen. Instead of seizing the momentum, Mickelson seemed to ease off the gas pedal and put it in cruise control.
Now that he has tried to turn it on again this year, Mickelson has been woefully short. More than anything, his putting stroke has failed him. Instead of confidently and resolutely working through his slump like a confident hitter in baseball, Mickelson has nervously changed his grip and approach, seemingly on a hole-by-hole basis.
His putting ranks 133rd on the tour this year, and his driving has also been an issue. While Mickelson is getting the kind of distance that he wants, he is not keeping the ball in the fairway. His game has gone scatter shot, and he ranks 143rd in total driving this year.
The golf world should be set up for a classic duel between Tiger and Lefty at the British Open. Instead, that’s just a fool’s dream.
Get ready for Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer and Henrik Stenson. One of those three will likely come home with the hardware, and don’t look for any American besides Jim Furyk or Rickie Fowler to provide anything more than a token appearance on the front page of the leaderboard.
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