Mitch Mustain, Whitney Lewis, and Lance Pavlas. What do the names mean to you? Most likely nothing, though if you’re a college football fan they likely ring a bell. All three were all-world college football recruits. They were the “can’t miss” types that missed. Recently the Bleacher Report did a story on some of the most famous recruits who never realized the promise they brought to campus.
All of the above helps explain my own immense skepticism about NILs and other attempts to compensate for allegedly exploited college football and basketball players. If we ignore the worst kept secret in all of sports (they were already being paid handsomely, albeit quietly), if we ignore the palaces in which they train, the free tutoring, the nutritionists, the access to the rich alums that any other student would give anything for, and if we ignore that athletes in good standing can finish their degrees at any time (including after professional stints), we can’t ignore the basic truth that immense promise exhibited during youth more often than not doesn’t translate to the collegiate level. The recruitment of top athletes brings new meaning to obsequious, the value of their scholarships is immense, only for all too many of them to not remotely live up to the hype. See the names mentioned. College athletes exploited? The view here is that more often than not they’re the exploiters. Something to think about.
This notion of young talent came to mind a lot in reading Bob Harig’s interesting, but repetitive and somewhat bland Tiger & Phil: Golf’s Most Fascinating Rivalry. You know who they are. Both were marked as stars from an early age. Harig reports that a three-year old Woods shot a 48 on nine holes, that by the age of thirteen, “he’d already appeared on Today, Good Morning America, ESPN, and each of the major networks’ evening news shows,” and that by the age of twenty-one he’d already had a biography published about him.
Woods’s ascendance took place at the Navy Golf Course near where the family lived in Cypress, CA, while Phil Mickelson built his legend south of woods in San Diego, CA. Mickelson won twelve AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) tournaments from 1985 to 1988, which Harig indicates is a “career record that still stands and is four better than the next two: Woods and Bob May.” Amid all this winning he could claim five runner-up finishes, and finished out of the top 10 only five times.
All of these rates mention as a reminder that neither Woods nor Mickelson was a late bloomer or anything of the sort, but also as a way to marvel. These are rare individuals who seemingly never peaked. Great as youths, they remarkably remained great.
Where it becomes even more interesting is to consider how difficult winning is in golf. It’s arguably the most difficult individual sport to be consistently good at, or win at, by far. Think about it. Without taking anything away from the achievements of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, there’s been a predictable quality to their wins over the years. Not so in golf, and not even for Woods and Mickelson.
Harig tallies up their victories early on. Woods can claim 15 majors to Mickelson’s 6, and 82 tournament wins to Mickelson’s 45. There’s a lot of daylight between the two in terms of wins, not to mention that Mickelson, while he’s spent 270 weeks at world #2 throughout his career, never promoted to #1. Harig reports that all that time Woods was “in the top position.”
Still, the comparisons in a sense gloss over what’s most remarkable about the rivalry. Not only did both realize their immense youth potential as adults, most amazing is that they’ve both been so consistently good for so long. This is important to think about in consideration of the various names (Couples, Duvall, Spieth?) who’ve risen to the top over the decades, seemed poised to dominate, only to not be able to maintain their status. Figure that both Woods and Mickelson have won majors in the last two years, while so many seemingly great players soar out of the gates (Brooks Koepka?) with majors as far as the eye can see in their future only for the big wins to stop . All of this is a long way of saying that what’s more impressive about the subjects of Harig’s book is that they’re still relevant so long after first being relevant. What an accomplishment.
Arguably one of the more intriguing aspects of the rivalry is what might have been, or some kind of counterfactual. How many majors would Mickelson have won absent Woods on the PGA Tour, and how many more majors would Woods have? We can never know, but Harig seems to logically conclude that they needed and need each other. Though it’s apparent they’re not tight in a friendship sense, Harig writes of Mickelson’s appreciation of Woods, and how his “presence of him helped indirectly pad his bank account while also forcing him to get better as a golfer.”
Obviously Woods’s presence lifted the game and the pay of every player (throw in coach, trainer, hypnotist, nutritionist, and psychologist close to the game too…), and this has to have been true of Mickelson. The guess here is that absent this Einstein of golf, Mickelson likely would have fewer majors. Really, how fortunate to have someone so brilliant to compete with during one’s best years. Knowing that Woods was always working he had to have lifted the game of every other player, including his most consistent opponent.
It all calls for even greater admiration of what Woods has achieved. Again, there’s a predictable quality to tennis majors, but never with golf. That he’s won 15 majors is otherworldly, and something greater than otherworldly in consideration of the injuries that have revealed themselves over the years. Did Mickelson lift Woods to greater heights? His presence obviously did not hurt him, but everyone was gunning for Woods.
Of course, if you’re buying Harig’s book or reading this review of Harig’s book, odds are you already know what’s been written so far, and likely much more. Which may present a problem. Harig indicates early on that Woods’s late father Earl instructed him to not give the media “more than necessary,” and that seemingly speaks to the challenge Harig faced in writing the book. If Woods is somewhat inscrutable, whom to ask? It seems Harig wasn’t looking to dig too much, which would be difficult to do on account of his ongoing coverage of professional golf and Woods himself.
That’s a long way of saying that anyone looking for the salacious, or a blockbuster piece of information about the rivalry, is unlikely to find it. Harig surely tries. One guesses the publisher wanted him too. Speculating on why they apparently don’t like each other, Harig references “personality traits,” oddly says “of course there was race.” This is odd simply because more than most want to admit, Woods had long before transcended race. Such is the beauty of a meritocracy. Color doesn’t matter.
Further on race, Harig claims that “Phil had none of those concerns.” Which was all so pointless. Figure that Tiger was and likely is the most popular player in golf, his arrival in the sport enriched everyone else precisely due to his popularity and his broadening impact, yet we’re still discussing skin color as though it factored? Supposedly Tiger “heard occasional derogatory comments from those in the gallery, not to mention letter writers and social media posters.” Oh come on! If there were “derogatory comments” about race in the gallery, what were they? As for letter writers and social media, it’s seriously hard to imagine Tiger spent real time on either. To presume otherwise is to insult his genius from him as a player. Greatness requires endless amounts of work. At which point there’s little to the rumors of dislike, or little of interest that’s reported.
Jim Nantz is the modern giant of professional golf announcers, and his analysis of the alleged dislike among the rivals goes like this: “I can confirm that off camera, he [Phil] says the exact same thing. I’ve talked to him countless times. He has high regard for Tiger. He totally feels like [Woods] helped him make a fortune. He was the first guy who really said that.” Is Nantz perhaps hiding something too, or saving something for his own eventual memoirs of him? This is not asked conspiratorially as much as it’s asked with expectations about Harig’s book top of mind. The expectation was anecdotes of serious dislike between the two, but the best your reviewer could find within happened after 3-time tour winner Rich Beem won the 2002 PGA Championship. Beem bested Woods by one stroke, and Woods was in the locker room. When Beem won Woods said “That’s Rich Beem one, Phil Mickelson zero!” Get it? Ok, an odd response to missing out on a playoff with Beem, but hardly a big story?
It’s no insight to say that the Beem line arguably speaks to Tiger’s longtime need a la Michael Jordan to create enemies. Competitive people do just that. And wow is Woods competitive. Without knowing what the ACL means for athletes in exact ways, Harig quotes Woods as saying “I basically played since July of ’07 with no ACL so I was kind of used to it.” For those who didn’t know, or don’t remember, Woods won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg. Someone that competitive would presumably say a lot of things. The wonder is that there isn’t more in the book of the Rich Beem variety.
Most interesting from a golf angle was why Woods and Mickelson were a bad pairing for the Ryder Cup. It seemed to come down to golf balls. Depending on the professional, they prefer different kinds based on style. Not a big story, but interesting.
Most interesting from a writing perspective was perhaps the poor editing. This is St. Martin’s Press, a name publisher. And this is a high-profile book; one that’s gotten good attention in Sports Illustratedthe Wall Street Journal, and surely all the golf magazines. Despite that, one reads on p. 32 that “It didn’t take long before Phil was piling up platitudes, hauling in trophies, and making a name for himself.” Two pages later your reviewer read that “It didn’t take long before Phil was piling up platitudes, hauling in trophies, and making a name for himself.”
Repetition in any book is not a bad thing, but the repetition here seemed of the kind alluded to above. Readers will be alerted at least twice that Nick Faldo overcame a 6-shot deficit to win the Masters in 1999, and that Tiger’s 15-shot victory margin at the 2000 US Open bested the previous record of 13 shots in 1862. Tom Morris Sr. It’s all kind of sad. Though more books are sold than ever, the time put into each one seemingly continues to decline.
To be clear about what you’re reading, this review isn’t one of a golfer. It’s one written by someone who is very interested in sports, and then fascinated by talented people in sports. It just seemed there wasn’t much about the subjects as individuals, but lots about the various tournaments. It would be interesting to run this review by a real golf fan to see if the critics or lukewarm response to the gossip translate to those more in the know.
The concluding guess here is that golfers will really enjoy the book because at its core it’s about golf, and is about golf perhaps more than it is the rivalry. About the rivalry, there’s just not much there that fans wouldn’t already know. Which may be enough. Let’s not forget that the subjects have once again been stars since they were youths. How very remarkable that they’re still stars. There you have it, more repetition.