At the final major, Tiger and Phil are the main event
Neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson is putting too much stock in their match-up in the first two rounds of the PGA Championship. Nevertheless, this latest chapter of their rivalry remains the center of conversion at Medinah.
MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- The 10th tee is tucked away in a far corner of Medinah Country Club, where green mesh on a chain-linked fence separates the world's best golfers from a steady stream of cars on Lake Street.
It's not much of an arena for the main event at the PGA Championship.
Considering how rarely Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson go head-to-head in a major, it should be quite a stage.
"Obviously, the fans that Phil has and the fans I have, it'll make for a very loud atmosphere," Woods said.
"I think that the PGA has everything under control safety-wise," Mickelson said. "That would be the only concern. But I think it should be fine and a lot of fun."
The PGA Championship traditionally puts together the three major champions of the year for the first two rounds, and this year it has a doozy at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday.
In one corner is Woods, the British Open champion, fresh off consecutive victories that brought him his 11th major at Royal Liverpool and his 50th career PGA Tour title at the Buick Open.
In the other corner is Mickelson, the Masters champion, defending PGA champion and the greatest threat to Woods' throne.
Joining them in the role of Switzerland is U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
"I'm sure it will be a zoo," Ogilvy said Tuesday. "It'll be interesting to see how they get along with each other. I've never played with both of them at the same time. I know them both well enough, and I've played with them a few times, so it'll be interesting. It'll be quite funny, and the crowd will be quite vocal."
They have been rivals for the better part of the last decade -- Woods the ruthless champion, Mickelson the people's choice. Strangely enough, this will be only the 14th time they have played together, and the third time in a major.
Mickelson chatted his way around Augusta National with Fred Couples during his Masters victory in April. He was asked how it might be different Thursday at Medinah.
"Amount of conversation," he replied.
Their last meeting at a major was a classic. It was the final round of the 2001 Masters, where Woods was going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive major and Mickelson, who had stopped two of Woods' streaks, was one shot behind. Woods pulled away with mistake-free golf on the back nine for a two-shot victory.
"That was fun," Woods recalled. "I was lucky enough to win, but to be able to go down the stretch in a major championship is always fun. With a talent like Phil, you always know you have to play your best in order to come out on top."
According to Mickelson's coach, Woods' best might not be enough this time.
Dave Pelz, the short-game guru who has helped shape Mickelson's revival over the last three years, told the Chicago Tribune in a story Tuesday that when Mickelson is at his best, "I'm thinking nobody can beat him."
Does that include a certain No. 1 player with 11 majors to Mickelson's three?
"You bet it does," Pelz said. "If Phil's long swing is good, his short game, I believe, is the best in the world. "I'm not saying Tiger's short game is bad; he has a great short game. But I think Phil putts more consistently than Tiger does. He has more imagination and a few more shots around the green."
Told these comments, Woods paused and said, "I think I'm pretty tough to beat when I'm playing well, too."
Mickelson described Pelz' comments as "enthusiastic."
"I've tried not to give you too much to run with, and so I'm paying other people to do it," he said with a laugh.
Mickelson once needled Woods in a magazine story three years ago by saying Woods used "inferior equipment." Woods was coming off knee surgery that year and in his first tournament back, at the Buick Invitational, he met Mickelson in the final group and drummed him.
That was one of many showdowns between golf's two biggest stars, and Woods usually has the last word.
Mickelson scored by beating Woods at Torrey Pines in 2000 to end his six-tournament winning streak, then coming from behind to beat him at the Tour Championship that year in Atlanta, the first time in four years Woods had blown a 54-hole lead.
Woods most recently took Mickelson down at Doral last year in a sizzling duel, making a 30-foot birdie on the 71st hole and a 6-foot par to secure the one-shot victory. It was a record crowd that afternoon in Miami, some 50,000 fans gathered to watch two heavyweights trading their best shots, and they weren't disappointed.
But that was a final round.
Their summit at Medinah will only get them to the weekend, which is why neither of them is putting too much stock into the match-up.
"It is different in the sense that you're not in contention to win a golf tournament yet," Woods said. "You're trying to put yourself in position to win a golf tournament. When you're playing against ... those guys in a major, down the stretch on Sunday, now we've got everything on the line. but on a Thursday and Friday, you're just getting started."
Both come into the final major in a different frame of mind.
Mickelson was on the verge of joining Woods as the only players in the last 50 years to win three straight majors. He needed a par on the last hole at Winged Foot to win the U.S. Open, and bumbled his way to a double-bogey to lose by one. He has played just three times since then, none very impressive, including his missed cut last week at The International.
"Here's a great example of how Tiger and I prepare differently," Mickelson said. "He goes to the PGA Championship thinking that winning the British Open and winning the Buick Open is the best way. And I go in thinking that missing the cut is the best, and it gives me a weekend off to focus on my game."
Mickelson was at his self-deprecating best Tuesday, which is not to be mistaken for how he feels about his chances. He loses more than he wins against Woods, but he relishes every opportunity.
"He's one of the best players of all time, if not the best," Mickelson said. "It's been a fun challenge for me and the other guys to play against him, and he's also pushed me to work harder and get better and achieve levels of success I may not have achieved."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.