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PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW: Woods-Mickelson rivalry heating up

Photo by Chris O'Meara

Photo by Chris O'Meara

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Phil Mickelson had not done much of anything this year until the Masters rolled around, which also happened to be the week Tiger Woods returned to golf.

It probably was just a coincidence.

Or maybe not.

Mickelson, perhaps more than any other player in this era, has always relished a chance to compete against Woods. Over the past couple of years, he has played some of his best golf when Woods was in the same leaderboard, sometimes in the same group.

"I think that as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate all that he has done for the game of golf, and me in particular," Mickelson said. "I've also found that I've needed him to help me get my best golf out. He has pushed me to work harder, and he has pushed me to become a better player. And I get motivated when he's back in the field."

They arrived at the TPC Sawgrass as the No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, with momentum squarely on Mickelson's side.

After winning the Masters for his third green jacket, Mickelson nearly made it two wins in a row until Rory McIlroy stole the show at Quail Hollow with a 62 in the final round, a performance that will be talked about all year. Mickelson had to settle for second place, but it gave Lefty a chance to be No. 1 in the world ranking for the first time in his career.

Mickelson would have to win The Players Championship -- he last won in 2007 -- and have Woods finish out of the top five.

Those aren't necessarily long odds.

Mickelson is playing as well as anyone. Woods is not playing like Woods.

After a tie for fourth in the Masters -- remarkable performance after not competing for five months while coping with the fallout from extramarital affairs -- Woods never looked worse at Quail Hollow when he shot his second-highest score (79) and missed the cut with his highest 36-hole score (153) in his PGA Tour career.

This is the first time Woods has ever played the week after missing the cut -- granted, it was only his sixth missed cut. And he has never missed the cut in consecutive starts in his career.

Does he have issues with his confidence?

"No," Woods said.

He tees off Thursday afternoon with Hunter Mahan and Ian Poulter, neither of whom can be accused of confidence issues after big wins in Arizona this year -- Mahan in the Phoenix Open, Poulter at the Match Play Championship.

Mickelson goes off Thursday morning in an All-Star group that features Ernie Els (with two victories this year) and Dustin Johnson, the 25-year-old who should be in every conversation when it comes to the best young players in the world. He's certainly among the longest.

That could be one of the top story lines at Sawgrass this week -- a change at the top.

The Players Championship already is exciting in its own right with perhaps the most dynamic closing stretch in golf -- the par-5 16th that is easily reachable in two, the island-green 17th for a par 3, and a strong par 4 at the end. The other 15 holes are equally compelling, even if no one talks about them enough.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson seem to be thinking about the ranking too much.

Woods has been at the top for the past five years, and while he doesn't like being second -- he certainly didn't think much of his tie for fourth at the Masters -- it's not like it hasn't happened before.

David Duval overtook Woods in 1999 (at The Players Championship, no less), while Vijay Singh replaced him after winning the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston in 2004, the year Singh won nine times.

In both cases, Woods was overhauling his swing, or nearing the end of a swing change. In this case, he is trying to mend his personal life, along with an image that has been shattered in public and in the endorsement arena.

"The whole idea to be No. 1 and to continue to be No. 1, you have to win golf tournaments," Woods said. "And I haven't done that in a while. I haven't played in a while."

Mickelson has never been this close to No. 1.

"It's every player's goal and intent to strive to be recognized as the No. 1 player in the world relative to the rankings," Mickelson said. "It's certainly something that I have been striving for but have not achieved yet. And so it would mean a lot to me. But for me to accomplish that, I can't focus on that. I've got to go out and get ready to play this golf course because it's not an easy challenge.

"And for me to have a chance to achieve No. 1, I've got to win," he said. "So I've got a lot of work ahead."

At the Masters, Mickelson became the first player to win three straight tournaments in which Woods was playing, a streak that dates to the Tour Championship in September and continued in Shanghai in November.

Another win might be bigger than usual for Mickelson. In this case, Woods could use a victory even more.