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Duel at the top of golf ladder

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods warmed up side by side at Augusta on Sunday but were separated by five shots at the finish.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2010 01:19 IST

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods warmed up side by side at Augusta on Sunday but were separated by five shots at the finish.

Perhaps the most compelling question to emerge in the wake of Phil Mickelson’s truly shining moment at the Masters and Tiger Woods’s reality check there is this: have the stars finally aligned for a genuine rivalry to thrive at the top of the game?

It was impossible to think otherwise as the most exciting Masters in years unfolded Sunday at Augusta National. Although Mickelson and Woods, the two best golfers of this era, were not paired head to head, there was little doubt about who the most-watched players were on golf’s biggest stage.

Mickelson has elevated his game. Woods suddenly appears vulnerable. The competition between them finally has the dynamic it has lacked.

The 2010 Masters turned out to be a grand show, a sweeping 3-D spectacle with giant performances everywhere, starting with Mickelson’s in the role of leading man. The supporting actors were many and their level of play so high that some of pine trees are still trembling from the roars that shook down the echoes of bygone days.

The bravura performances by Lee Westwood and Anthony Kim, by K. J. Choi, and by the 50-year-old Fred Couples and the 60-year-old Tom Watson, were worthy of note. But the focus necessarily shifts to the two golfers who move the needle, and to have them both in the frame at the same time, playing at a high level, is something that can lift the game’s profile and help it shake off the perception of lethargy that set in during Woods’s five-month absence.

When Woods and Mickelson will play in the same event again is unclear. Mickelson is likely to play in the Players Championship in Florida, another golf course where he and Woods have won.

Golf needs to provide television viewers and fans a steady diet of Mickelson and Woods at tournaments. What started last year when Mickelson beat Woods in two late-season events came into sharp focus at the Masters. There is no longer any doubt that, two months before his 40th birthday, Mickelson has elevated all parts of his game to the extent that he can beat Woods even if he is underperforming in one area.

And Woods has not been able to make sufficient improvements to his own game to maintain the distance between himself and Mickelson. By winning, Mickelson stepped into the elite company of the three-time Masters champions, and one win behind Arnold Palmer and Woods.

This means that golf has Mickelson as a modern version of Palmer. And it has Woods as Jack Nicklaus.

For all the concern about Woods’s on-course behavior and language, which he said he was trying to improve, restoring his once airtight game is a growing concern, one that heightens the dramatic tension and the interest in just when his next meeting with Mickelson will take place.