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Mickelson playing the golf of his life, while Woods still searching

  • Phil Mickelson, left, walks in front of Tiger Woods after both hit from the second tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

    Phil Mickelson, left, walks in front of Tiger Woods after both hit from the second tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

  • Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods, right, on the tenth greenof the Pebble Beach Golf Links during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Mickelson won the tournament after shooting a 8-under-par 64 to finish at total 17-under-par. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

    Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods, right, on the tenth greenof the Pebble Beach Golf Links during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Mickelson won the tournament after shooting a 8-under-par 64 to finish at total 17-under-par. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

  • Phil Mickelson, left, walks in front of Tiger Woods after both hit from the second tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
  • Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods, right, on the tenth greenof the Pebble Beach Golf Links during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Mickelson won the tournament after shooting a 8-under-par 64 to finish at total 17-under-par. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Even if you haven’t always been a Phil Mickelson fan – and I haven’t – you have to admit that his final round Sunday in the British Open at Muirfield, featuring four birdies on the final six holes for a stunning 66 – was one of the greatest rounds of golf you’ve seen in a long, long time. It was the best round of golf you’ve ever seen from Mickelson, and that’s saying something.

Tiger Woods, meantime, didn’t have the worst round of his life, but he certainly didn’t reach out and grab the tournament by the throat as some expected. He trailed by two strokes at the start of the day, and that’s never a good position for Woods, who likes to come from the front to win.

He used to be able to do that: grab a lead and hold on tight. I loved to watch Woods play golf. He was long off the tee, creative near the green and deadly with the putter. Mickelson often seemed unsure of himself and his game, and his putter used to betray him.

Why the comparison? Much of the golf world long ago divided itself into Woods fans and Mickelson fans, for whatever reason. That the two golfers plain don’t like each other fueled the debate.

I was a Tiger gal and remained one even when I found out about all those actual Tiger gals. I was a fan of his golf, not of his personality or his marriage or any of the extraneous stuff that surrounds any athlete. He gave fans some memorable moments: from his first major title when he destroyed Augusta, the azalea-festooned former bastion of the white male elite, by 12 strokes, then wept in his father’s arms, to the 2008 U.S. Open, where he won despite a very bad knee injury that required surgery.

Since his messy divorce, his sex addiction therapy, his injuries and his many, many personnel changes, he’s not nearly so much fun to watch. He’s still the No. 1 golfer in the world, for what that’s worth. (Rory McIlroy had been No. 2 until he was unseated Sunday by Mickelson, and McIlroy publicly admitted he’s playing so poorly he needs a psychiatrist.) But it’s been five years without a major for Woods, and it’s been quite a while since he struck fear in the hearts of every other golfer on the course, including Mickelson.

Mickelson is still not fearsome, not in that way. He’s respected, but he’s also well-liked by most. Coming to Muirfield off a victory the previous weekend in the Scottish Open, he felt good about his chances – and he never sulked when things didn’t go his way. In links golf, things often don’t go your way.

Mickelson knew Sunday morning that he was not out of the running, even if he was in a tie for ninth and even if there were some big names ahead of him (including Woods in second) because the wind and high hay of Muirfield is a great equalizer. Despite being painfully aware of never winning a British Open, Mickelson exuded confidence in his pre-round interview. In fact, Mickelson exuded confidence the entire weekend. And that’s why it’s become easier (for me) to root for Mickelson. And harder to root for Woods.

Woods exudes a lot of things, but these days, confidence is not one of them. He talks a good game after his bad rounds: “I played well,” he’ll say, and he usually has, but not well enough. His demeanor, his body language and his spotty putting belie his words. He blew a birdie chance at the first hole Sunday and I wrote him off for the day, because he is no longer the Tiger Woods.

He’s never overcome a final-round deficit in any of his impressive 14 majors, and that ability to rally is definitely something most golfers need in their bag. He was so dominant in his heyday that he didn’t need to. But his heyday is over. He doesn’t handle adversity well these days, to put it mildly. And while some of us used to excuse Woods his outbursts of temper, because he was screaming at himself more often than anyone else, that excuse is no longer working at age 37. His unseemly “G-D it!” eruptions – including Saturday and Sunday mornings, when they could not have been less appropriate – were brought into living rooms everywhere by ESPN. My language is as salty as 30 years in a newsroom can make it, but I don’t expect to hear certain words blasting through my TV during cartoon time.

I don’t know if a marketing team got hold of Mickelson and molded him into the anti-Tiger or if it happened organically, but the contrast is remarkable. At 43, Mickelson is in many ways a complete golfer and complete man. He’s battled psoriatic arthritis and supported his wife through her battle with cancer. He is a devoted father, and not just by professional athlete standards. He’s been with the same caddie for 21 years. He is open and engaging with the media – like it or not, that’s how an image is made – and he signs autographs until the pens run dry. He’s made a commercial with his parents, for Pete’s sake. (Maybe Nike can piece together some footage of Tiger’s late father, Earl, lecturing him about swearing on the golf course.)

Mickelson is still not the perfect golfer, but he may be playing the best golf of his life. Woods is far from washed up, but it seems impossible to believe he’ll ever play the best golf of his life again. That’s a shame for him and a loss for us, because when he was the best, he was completely absorbing. But Mickelson’s game is the one to watch now. And he may not have played his best golf yet.

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