Age-old debates create drama within sport.
And for years, the game of golf enjoyed Tiger Woods and his unmatched dominance. There wasn’t much debate.
Within the media, an incessant desire to find a suitable rival boiled perpetually; like a flowing lava from the head of a volcano, a never-ending source. The better part of two decades welcomed many recommended cohorts, but none were more common than one, Phil Mickelson.
Take a scope of the two careers– both Mickelson and Woods. Before 2004, the former was a major-less hopeful, while the latter had already completed the career Grand Slam, nearly half of his mantle filled with major championship hardware. The latter was already among the greatest players in history.
The contrast between the two was palpable.
As I spent time reflecting on the Masters, watching the current Live on the Range coverage talking place during Masters’ Week, I found myself pondering the current position of the two players now, how different their two careers (& lives) look.
For years, given the choice between Tiger and Phil, 4 out of 5 golfers would trade places with Tiger. Among the youth, that number was probably 5 out of 5– or at least 99 out of 100.
Tiger was the strong, built golfer, the physically intimidating player. He was the immortal. With a father who preached reverence of his impact on the world, he was “The Chosen One.” As many writers who observed him would say, he carried the weight of a greek god.
Phil on the other hand, was different than Tiger in almost every way imaginable. More portly than Woods, Phil was the one who seemed to enjoy his lunches. Having heard much about his weight and body over his career, he was criticized for not taking the approach to fitness that Tiger did. Tiger spent time in the gym, while Phil was rumored to have spent time on the chipping green and with his kids.
“That’s not what champions do,” they would say. Have the heart of a lion. Or better yet, a tiger.
Phil’s work ethic, particularly physically, was scrutinized.
But as we move into the late moons of both careers, I can’t help but wonder. If forced to choose again, what do those 5 golfers say? How about those 100 children? Would as many of them choose Tiger?
Ignore the martial affairs, the sponsorships and the off-the-course activities. Let’s focus on the athletic careers of the two men. At the same time, spend time looking at the outset of their careers, what’s left for their futures.
At 40 years of age, Tiger hasn’t recorded a full season on the PGA Tour in recent memory. His last major came in 2008 at the famed U.S. Open, an event closing in on a decade’s age. His win rate has dropped in an alarming fashion. He’s rarely in contention any more–that, if he even plays.
Injuries have plagued Tiger’s career, no secret there. Knee, back, back, ribs, wrist, knee, back, back–the list is longer than a honey-do. While some have screamed illegal performance enhancement, most others have talked on his gym habits. He was a man who worked tirelessly in the gym, putting his body on the brink of destruction.
The destruction, followed by the rebuild, seems to be indicative of Tiger’s career.
He’s won majors with three different golf swings, rebuilding his game with multiple world renowned instructors. He’s tore his body to rubble, only to allow it to recover again, stronger than before. Unfortunately now, as the years have accumulated, his body isn’t returning to form. In fact, it’s looking even more destructed.
So let’s turn our focus back to Phil.
The left-hander with the languid motion, Phil has never lost his beyond parallel, seemingly uncontrollable, precision filled golf swing. He’s retained the same distance throughout his bag over the past 15 years, with the assistance of technology. His short game hasn’t lost an ounce of it’s edge.
At age 45, Phil is in the best shape of his life. Despite fighting a well-known battle with psoriatic arthritis, he’s found a way to overcome it. While many his age are looking to keep form, Phil is improving. In 2016, he’s logging one of the best ball striking campaigns of his career, discussing with the media a newly discovered energy for the game.
Still maintaining the body he’s always had, the past few years have seen a tighter Phil. A buff, yet firmer golf body. He’s done all of this, while maintaining a flexibility which has allowed him to stay primarily injury free over the course of his career.
Again, at age 45, Phil Mickelson has years left on his career.
Look at the two, Tiger and Phil.
Their careers aren’t as much a distant reflection as they once were. Phil’s been able to add 5 majors to his record, one major shy of the career grand slam. Adding over forty PGA Tour wins to boot, his career is the best of any left-hander in history, a top-10 player in the history of the game. And there’s time left on the clock, for Phil.
Tiger’s incredible run through the game is undoubtedly, over. He’ll never return to the dominance we saw from him. Right now, playing the game pain free is a desired outcome for the 14-time major winning. He’s unable to heal, as doctors have left the fate of his body to destiny, out of his hands.
For Tiger, this is an impossible paradox. The way to improve, is to not improve? The way he can heal, is by doing nothing? The idea is a foreign one to Tiger. With the surgeries piling up like majors, Tiger’s body is now a frame of what it was. His career, is maybe more of a mystery.
People, even the Tiger pundits, still know he has the ability to win again. Maybe even win another major. There’s no doubt there. But it’s the length of time he has left of being a contender that is a complete unknown.
So I ask again, would you rather be Phil or Tiger? Phil, a man with a second wind on the PGA Tour, has many events left in a restored body. Tiger, a future which resembles an abyss.
During the press conferences leading up to the 80th playing of the Masters, Phil gleamed when sitting in front of the media. In discussing the game he so dearly loves, Phil exuded a contagious energy in the media room. With an arsenal of joke book jokes and a fair share of smiles, it was obvious how peaceful Phil seemed. Returning to the home of his three green jackets, Phil looked as thankful as he did optimistic for his future.
I thought, as I watched, about Tiger. What he was doing.
Ten years ago, Phil was the one who had difficult runner-up press conferences. Phil was the one who answered the Tiger questions; questions of why he couldn’t be Tiger. Most times, why he couldn’t beat Tiger. There was agony for Phil. He was the one who was put on the silver medal podium.
But now, Phil possesses an enduring smile. He’s got another life of golf ahead of him. Retrospect sometimes gives us clearer vision. At this point, I’m not so sure Phil wants to be Tiger. He’s got the longevity. He has the future.
Phil will be swinging for many years to come.
And that, is an enviable place to be.