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Emerging from the shadows

In the wake of Woods' misfortunes, fans are rooting for Mickelson and the top spot is finally within the grasp of the popular left-hander.
Phil Mickelson, right, has a chance to pass Tiger Woods as No 1 for the first time.
Phil Mickelson, right, has a chance to pass Tiger Woods as No 1 for the first time.

You get used to certain things in golf Ian Poulter's clothes, Rory McIlroy's hair, Colin Montgomerie's mood swings, Sergio Garcia's missed putts and Phil Mickelson being behind Tiger Woods in the world rankings. The first four might never change, but the fifth probably will. And it could be this week.

Mickelson is the world No 2, with Woods ahead of him. And after 18 years as a professional, every single one of those as a star, the summit is at last in sight for Mickelson. The sport has never had a left-hander as its leading light, but with Woods not playing, Mickelson goes to Fort Worth, Texas, knowing that victory at the Crowne Plaza Invitational on Sunday will take him to the top for the first time.

If it happens, most golf fans will rejoice. In terms of popularity, Mickelson, 39, has been winning the contest hands down since the revelations about Woods's sex life started coming out last November. In terms of ability there will always be differences of opinion, but in terms of recent results, the pendulum has definitely been swinging Mickelson's way. Woods has not been seen much lately, of course. After nearly five months out to try to fix the wreckage of his private life he is now out of action again with a neck injury, although his return is expected at next week's Memorial tournament in Ohio.

In the last eight months, Mickelson has won the Tour Championship with Woods three shots behind him in second place, the HSBC Champions in Shanghai with Woods five strokes back in sixth and last month, of course, The Masters with Woods five shots back in fourth. Mickelson would also have won the Quail Hollow Championship earlier this month but for McIlroy's astonishing 66-62 finish from the cut line. Woods missed the cut.

With Woods's coach walking out, his marriage on the rocks and a body that is letting him down, he has a lot to deal with as he ponders the future. But Mickelson has hardly been trouble-free off the course this past year either and that ought not to be forgotten. It was last May that he was the one announcing a break from the game after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was swiftly followed by the news that his mother had the same disease.

If you had to pick two images from this season so far one would be Woods, in jacket and open-necked shirt, reading his prepared "mea culpa" statement from the US Tour headquarters in February. The other would be Mickelson winning his third green jacket at Augusta and hugging his wife, Amy, for what seemed an eternity at the back of the green. He did not know whether she would be well enough to attend.

She might not be in Texas, but she will certainly share the delight if her husband can triumph again and this time take the world No 1 spot. Woods has held the position for 601 weeks in all during a career like no other and presumably will not be unduly perturbed by dropping to second because it has happened to him before. Ernie Els, Greg Norman, David Duval and Vijay Singh have all knocked Woods off the top spot since he first got there in June 1997.

This time, however, it is not out of the question that Woods may not see No 1 again. The acid tests coming up, of course, are Pebble Beach and St Andrews. Woods won the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach by a major championship-record 15 strokes, a month later triumphed at the Home of Golf by eight and then returned there five years ago and won by five. But his life, game and image have all changed since then.

The question is whether Mickelson can take advantage and finally achieve a goal he must have had since he took up the game. At The Players he said: "It's every player's goal and intent to strive to be recognised as the No 1 player in the world relative to the rankings. "It's certainly something that I have been striving for, but have not achieved yet and so it would mean a lot to me. "But for me to accomplish that, I can't focus on that. * PA

Published: May 27, 2010 04:00 AM


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