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A rivalry at a crossroads

The showdown between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Doral captured the largest television audience for a golf tournament since the U.S. Open.

It included a certain Ryder Cup captain who only recognized the faces.

“I watched it from start to finish,” Hal Sutton said Tuesday. “What part of my body wouldn’t say, ‘Where was this in September?’ We all knew both were capable of that. I don’t know why they didn’t do it together.”

Six months ago at Oakland Hills was the only time Woods and Mickelson were partners, not rivals, although it was hard to tell the difference. They stood some 20 yards apart on the first tee for the opening game at the Ryder Cup and kept their distance while losing their first two matches.

As rivals at Doral, they were brilliant.

Both made 27 birdies over four rounds on the Blue Monster.

Woods took the lead with an eagle on the 603-yard 12th hole when he hit a 3-wood that carried 290 yards. Mickelson fired back with back-to-back birdies, starting with a 3-iron from 242 yards to within 8 feet. Back and forth they went before a delirious and evenly divided gallery.

Both players deny their relationship is icy at best. Mickelson said the partnership at Oakland Hills was “not uncomfortable at all,” but it might have looked that way because they played poorly. Woods said their relationship was overanalyzed. Johnny Miller finally chimed in, “It’d be great if these guys answered the questions.”

They certainly can answer some questions in the next month.

This renewed rivalry is at a crossroads heading into the first major championship of the year.

Mickelson was so sure he was going to win that some might wonder how much the loss takes out of him. He all but deified Woods on the eve of the final round, then got a gleam in his eye as he talked about how much he was looking forward to taking him on.

As well as Mickelson played, the difference at Doral came down to him missing short putts down the stretch, something that has haunted him throughout his career. He called the loss a “great slap in the face,” and said it would only make him work harder for their next battle, the sooner the better.

What to make of Woods?

The big picture is that he shot 63-66 to rally from five shots down against the hottest player in golf. Woods still hits shots no one else can. He was 44 yards longer than Mickelson on one tee shot, and Woods was a combined 330 yards longer than Mickelson on every tee shot but the par 3s.

He made clutch putts, as always, none bigger than the 30-foot birdie that gave him the lead on the 17th.

Still, Woods has not exactly slammed the door in his last two victories.

Last month at Torrey Pines, he boldly went for the par-5 18th green with only a one-shot lead, fanned a 2-iron and was fortunate it didn’t go in the water. At Doral, with a chance to apply enormous pressure, Woods came out of a 7-iron and left himself a downhill putt from 55 feet.

There are times when Woods takes a half-dozen repeated practice swings on the tee, still trying to drill into his mind the mechanics of his new swing.

Woods has had a revolving door of rivals for the last six years, although this one is unrivaled.

Vijay Singh has performed better as a rival. He is the only player who has approached Woods’ dominance in the last 10 years, and he took the No. 1 ranking away from him in a head-to-head battle outside Boston last year. Woods and Singh aren’t chums, but the big Fijian is not a threat to take away Woods’ adulation from the fans.

Mickelson is.

Ernie Els and Woods make the most natural rivalry. The Big Easy has finished second to Woods six times, more than any other player, and eight of his 15 victories on the PGA Tour have come with Woods in the field. But it is difficult for Woods to work up any animosity inside the ropes because Els is universally liked and respected.

That’s not the case with Mickelson.

Woods’ emotions at Doral spoke volumes about this rivalry. While it was a dramatic duel, there was one even better five years ago at Kapalua, where Woods and Els were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world and tied for the lead going into the final round of the Mercedes Championships.

The lead changed seven times, and no one ever led by more than one shot. Both made an eagle on the last hole to force a playoff. Both made birdie on the 18th to extend it. Woods finally won with a 40-foot birdie putt that had 6 feet of break, then he watched as Els’ birdie putt from 35 feet stopped an inch short of the cup.

Woods was thrilled that afternoon on Maui.

He was relieved Sunday in Miami.

There was an uppercut fist pump when Woods made the eagle on No. 12. He pursed his lips and firmly squeezed the bill of his cap to acknowledge the masses as he walked briskly off the 17th green with a one-shot lead.

When Mickelson’s 30-foot chip for birdie dipped in and out of the cup on the 18th, his reaction contained as much raw emotion as his 13-inch vertical leap when he captured the Masters.

Clearly, this was a battle both players desperately wanted to win.

How they respond could shape the season.

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