From The Inbox

Tiger or Phil? For Masters, pick Mickelson

The guy hasn’t won a Masters since 2005, but Tiger Woods nonetheless presides as a favorite of many bookies to claim the year’s first major championship, which is still seven weeks away. Woods could pick up a couple of victories between now and then and make his current price of 12-1 look like a steal, but that scenario is a bit of a reach, and Las Vegas oddsmakers don’t deal in such hypotheticals, anyway.

They just reset their odds. According to VegasInsider.com, there are eight players right there with Woods in the range of 12-1 to 15-1, including Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas, all of whom have accomplished considerably more than Woods since he launched that big comeback 13 months ago.

My point? People always will bet on Woods with their hearts, not their heads. That drops his odds to a lower number than they should be, which delights the folks in Vegas, who don’t have to pay out nearly as much if Woods were to win his 15th major title in April.

The same process is likely to apply at this year’s U.S. Open, to be held at Pebble Beach. Everybody remembers how Woods destroyed the field there in 2000, winning by 15 strokes. Even serious golf fans tend to forget that he squandered an excellent chance to win a fourth U.S. Open when it returned to Pebble in 2010, or that he hasn’t won a major title of any kind since 2008.

Hey, Superman could burst out of the phone booth and win a Grand Slam this year, for all we know. He’s still Tiger Woods, so there is no ceiling as to what he can achieve, but in the here and now, he remains a work in progress. His comeback has been quite successful, but his only victory in the past five years came last September against a 30-man field, and he stumbled when in the hunt at the final two majors of 2018.

There are a half-dozen players who should be favored ahead of Woods at Augusta National. My list doesn’t include Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy, but it does include Phil Mickelson, whose odds dropped from 40-1 to 25-1 following his triumph last week at Pebble Beach. He’s still a terrific buy at the new price, a three-time Masters champion who obviously worked harder than usual during the offseason to increase his swing speed and improve his putting.

Mickelson could do nothing between now and April 11 and I’ll still like his chances at the Masters. He almost won the Desert Classic before conquering the field at Pebble with a bogey-free final round, which bears a distinct resemblance to his start in 2004, when he won in Palm Springs and copped a solo third on the Monterey Peninsula.

In both cases, Mickelson prepared for the new season with a rededication to excellence. Fifteen years ago, it led to his first Masters title, a thriller over Ernie Els that remains one of the best golf tournaments I’ve ever covered. In 2019, the battle is against Father Time. At age 48, Mickelson can become the oldest man to win a major championship, and when he is motivated, when he is fully engaged, he still can get it done.

Speaking of done, I wrote a story for this website back in October saying I thought Mickelson was nearing the end of the line (“Mickelson nears end, but does he know it?” Oct. 25). He was coming off another lousy Ryder Cup, ending a year in which his dopey behavior at the U.S. Open overshadowed the WGC triumph he’d picked up 3½ months earlier (“Mickelson, USGA disgrace U.S. Open,” June 17). From a big-picture standpoint, I saw a legend on his last legs.

This prompted numerous love letters from readers telling me what a dunce I was, and for now, those readers are correct (“From the Morning Read inbox,” Oct. 26). I simply underestimated Mickelson’s drive to become a world-class player again at this point in his life. To see him recommit to greatness is admirable, especially for a man of such fortune and fame.

Mickelson seldom has done much on the Florida Swing, and he has skipped it altogether in each of the past two years. Just one of his 44 PGA Tour victories (Bay Hill, 1997) has come during that stretch of the schedule, although he did win the Players Championship in 2007, the first time it was played in May.

So by the time Mickelson gets to Augusta, his achievement at Pebble Beach will be largely forgotten. That’s not a bad thing. He was a great big afterthought heading into the 2013 British Open, a tournament he’d convinced himself that he couldn’t win. You remember what happened. When all the big names around him faltered and the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself that Sunday afternoon at Muirfield, Mickelson came up with the best golf of his life, which is saying something.

He began the day down by five and ended it ahead by three, hopping over Woods, Lee Westwood, Zach Johnson and Adam Scott, among others, with a closing 66. Only a couple of guys can tell you with a straight face that the majors are all that matter, and if you want to know the truth, Mickelson has been better than Woods in that department for quite a while now.

Tiger might have the bigger fan club, but I’ve got the emails to prove that Phil’s is louder. In seven weeks, Mickelson will be the one making all the noise.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com