PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Phil Mickelson has beaten Tiger Woods the last five times they have played together in the final round.
But never like this.
AT&T PEBBLE BEACH
Sam Snead won three of the first five editions of what is now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
This was a pounding at Pebble Beach. Mickelson shot a 64 on a day when no one else could do better than 67. Woods had a 75 on a day when only four players -- none of whom was in contention -- shot worse.
One guy left with the trophy, the other guy left with a lot to think about.
The relevance of Sunday is still to be determined.
The real measure of Woods most likely won’t happen until the Masters, which is just two months away. There is no doubt that Woods is more capable now than he has been since he was derailed from the fast track by chaos in his personal life and leg injuries. He has contended on Sunday in his last four tournaments, and that’s not an accident.
It’s the final rounds that are troubling.
In the middle of his last swing change in 2004, Woods had the 36-hole lead in consecutive weeks at Quail Hollow and the Byron Nelson Championship, stumbled badly on Saturday and then came up one shot short of a playoff on Sunday.
The last two tournaments, however, he hasn’t even been close.
In his 2012 debut at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, he was tied with Robert Rock of England going into the final round and couldn’t break par. Two weeks later at Pebble Beach, where he started the last day four shots behind Charlie Wi, he was one shot out of the lead while standing in the fairway on the par-5 sixth hole. Woods wound up nine shots out of the lead in a tie for 15th.
The guy dressed in red suddenly has a case of the Sunday blues.
He attributed his play in Abu Dhabi to not giving himself enough good looks at birdie. He attributed his downfall at Pebble Beach to not being able to make anything. Woods missed five putts in the 5-foot range.
Such performances used to be an exception, not a trend.
In those five tournaments where Mickelson has beaten Woods while paired with him in the final round, Lefty has won three times. So maybe there’s some truth to the notion that Woods brings out the best in Mickelson, or that Mickelson brings out the worst in Woods.
Rivalries are made out of moments like this.
In Woods’ benchmark season of 2000, Mickelson stopped his six-tournament winning streak at Torrey Pines and denied Woods a 10-win season on the PGA Tour by rallying to beat him at the Tour Championship.
The last time they played together on a Sunday when both had a chance to win was in Shanghai in 2009 for the HSBC Champions. Mickelson had a two-shot lead over Woods going into the final round, and Woods had to birdie the ninth hole to avoid shooting 40 on the front nine. He was never a factor. And that’s when Woods was at the top of his game.
As much as Mickelson enjoyed this latest snapshot, he was quick to observe the big picture.
“Although I feel like he brings out the best in me, it’s only been the past five years,” Mickelson said. “Before, I got spanked pretty good. Let’s not forget the big picture here. I’ve been beat up.”
Mickelson won for the 40th time in his career, only the ninth player to do that in PGA Tour history. Woods has 71 wins. Mickelson is a four-time major champion. Woods has been stuck on 14 since 2008.
But an 11-shot difference between them on a Sunday? That’s an attention-grabber, especially considering Woods’ performance indicated he was getting close, and Mickelson’s recent record caused him to start doubting himself.
Woods drives so much interest in golf that no one is a great victim of a rush to judgment. Remember, it was in 2001 when a golf magazine printed the headline, “What Wrong With Tiger?” on its cover after he failed to win the first five tournaments he played. Woods won the next three, including the Masters, which made him the only player to hold all four professional majors at the same time.
Even so, there is something that gives one pause about Pebble Beach.
Woods sounded indignant when someone brought up the fact his last PGA Tour victory was in September 2009, and his last win against a full field was two months after that in the Australian Masters, right before the Thanksgiving night fiasco that shattered his image and moved golf from sports pages to gossip magazines.
“People think it’s a couple of years, but I just won a couple months ago,” he said of the Chevron World Challenge, where he birdied his last two holes for a one-shot win over Zach Johnson against an 18-man field. “I look at that as a win. And I’m just kind of off to my first start of the year here in the States, and I made some good improvement this week.”
Then again, that win at Sherwood was inches away from being different. Woods had control of the final round early, let it get away, and could only watch as Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that looked all the way until it wasn’t. That would have given him a two-shot lead. Instead, Woods knocked in his 15-footer to tie, then won with a 6-foot putt on the end.
If Johnson’s putt goes in, the hole undoubtedly shrinks for Woods’ birdie attempt.
That’s how it looked for him Sunday at Pebble Beach during the opening seven-hole stretch, fertile ground for comebacks. His 5-foot birdie on the second hole missed the cup by 2 inches, which, on the PGA Tour level, is close to a mile. He was grinding to match Mickelson’s birdie on the fifth, and he three-putted from 18 feet on the seventh, missing his par putt from inside 3 feet.
Woods near the lead on Sunday used to bring a sense of inevitability. Now he is about unpredictability. He has said he is at peace with himself, and he looks calm and confident while working his way into contention. Sunday is hard work. There is a feeling watching him that Woods is trying too hard, that every putt means too much.
Perhaps that will change.
It used to be that each win gave him even more confidence. Now, one has to wonder if each Sunday brings more doubt.