x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Different strokes for the top two at Augusta

While Phil Mickelson was supplying the finishing touches to his fourth Major, Tiger Woods revealed he will now begin another indeterminate period of self-imposed exile from the game.

Tiger Woods, the world No 1, has seemingly taken another indefinite break after turning up at Augusta to play the Masters.
Tiger Woods, the world No 1, has seemingly taken another indefinite break after turning up at Augusta to play the Masters.

No sooner had Tiger Woods completed one of the most bizarre rounds of his career, golf's most famous and most controversial character launched another guessing game which will exasperate pundits all around the world. Indiscretions off the course have been coming thick and fast for Woods since the bombshell first dropped about his marital infidelity five months ago, but the world No 1 had until Sunday night been regarded as a model of tactfulness in going about the business that has made him rich and famous.

To declare, however, that he will now begin another indeterminate period of self-imposed exile from the game to follow the 144 days of inactivity leading to his blockbuster of a comeback in the Masters took some of the gloss off one of the most heart-warming celebrations of recent years. Striding down the 18th fairway of a thronging Augusta National as Woods was outlining his plans was an emotional Phil Mickelson, safe in the knowledge that a drilled second shot to within 15 feet of the 72nd hole of a thrilling championship had guaranteed him a third green jacket and an emotional embrace with his sick wife, Amy, outside the scorers' hut.

That was the tear-jerking moment the sporting world should have been digesting yesterday, not the gut-wrenching thought of when Woods would next strike a ball in as much anger as he showed in Sunday's round of five bogeys, four birdies and two eagles. Mickelson's personal problems - his wife and mother-in-law have both been diagnosed with breast cancer - have been overshadowed by those of Woods. The fear of losing loved ones through no fault of his led to Mickelson enduring a barren spell in his professional life to match that of the absent Woods, but there is no better way for Mickelson to put those distractions on hold than a journey down Magnolia Drive to prepare for his favourite major.

Mickelson is more at home at Augusta than anywhere else in the world and it showed over four captivating days as "Lefty" rediscovered the form that had brought two previous triumphs and a cluster of near misses. The thrill of back-to-back eagles - only the third time such a feat had been achieved in Masters history - midway through Saturday's pivotal third round was the catalyst for the Mickelson surge to victory from a position five strokes behind England's Lee Westwood with only 24 holes remaining.

That scoring burst - he was inches away from a third successive eagle at the 15th hole that day - enabled Mickelson to go out last with Westwood on a tense final afternoon and bring his far greater big event experience into play against a rival who continues to knock on the door at major championships but continues to see that door slammed in his face. Westwood, by a distance Europe's top player on form, should win a major one day but must now be fearing that day will never come after adding this frustrating runner-up position to his third places in the US Open, British Open and US PGA championships.

Woods should be commended for remaining in contention for a 15th major title for so long, considering the evident rustiness of his game and the irritating unreliability of his hitherto devastating driver. Woods, untypically careless on the greens on several occasions, still proved, to nobody's great surprise, that he remains the one to beat in the tournaments that really matter to him as he chases Jack Nicklaus's record haul of 18 major titles.

Thankfully for the good of this great game, there were players out there capable of denying him a fairy-tale comeback and, better still, Mickelson was the one who did it. wjohnson@thenational.ae