AUGUSTA – This is a question I’ve posed before, but one that keeps rattling around in my gourd, even more so after watching an almost giddy Phil Mickelson tackle the Masters gales Thursday:
Would you rather be Mickelson or Tiger Woods?
And we’re not veering here into personal habits (frankly, I wouldn’t go to either for an ethics lesson). Just purely on the competitive plane, if you could, whose life and golfing legacy would you assume?
There was Mickelson after Round 1 enthusing about his day versus the wind, at 46 fashioning a quite respectable 1 under. “I love it,” he said. Meanwhile, the younger and more spectacularly accomplished Woods is missing his third Masters in four years, burdened by back issues.
Mickelson hasn’t missed one of these parades through the pines in 23 years. Won three of them, too, just one fewer than Woods.
The choice is between a more concentrated dose of victory and fame – the headiest hit of both ever in golf – and a more sustained run of slightly less acclaim.
Woods will have many more majors than Mickelson (the count stands 14-5), more PGA Tour titles (79-42) and forever will be marked as the more important figure in the history of the game. Certainly more than anyone else, Woods was the player who barred the door to Mickelson doing even more with his career.
But Mickelson still has the opportunity to work on his resume, to play in the present tense not just warm himself by the fire of old glories. Just months ago, Mickelson was in a stirring, if losing, duel with Henrik Stenson for the British Open. He entered Friday with at least a chance to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion. Increasingly it appears that Woods, 41, physically can’t be a major player again.
Where Mickelson has been able to manage his own ailments – notably psoriatric arthritis – Woods continues to run afoul of his own body.
Money is not that large an issue in this debate. Woods has earned appreciably more – $110 million to $82.5 million – but in either case there should be enough in savings to see them through to the end.
Tiger or Phil? On one very superficial level it seems an easy choice. You could be Tiger Freakin’ Woods. Case closed.
Yet there’s a Thursday like this at the Masters that clouds this little hypothetical bar game. Give me just the opportunity to compete, to get the most out of an athlete’s limited time in the arena, to do what you were meant to do for as long, if not longer, than anyone thought possible.
Wouldn’t you rather be Phil?