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Published: Wednesday, 4/6/2005

The Big 4 really just BIG 2

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The buzz is that pro golf has a Big Four. No, not Ford, GM, Chrysler and Tiger.

Tiger Woods, of course, is a part of it. He drives a Buick.

Phil Mickelson wears the Ford logo above his heart.

Vijay Singh and Ernie Els are along for the ride, and what a luxurious ride it is. There's no place for Gremlins and Yugos and Pacers in the fast lane.

"I think it's really great for golf right now that every one of us [is] playing well," Singh said yesterday at Augusta National Golf Club. "We're being compared to the Nicklaus-Palmer-Player era, or Hogan and Snead and Byron Nelson. It's part of history. I think it's a thrill for us to be in this situation and I'm just fortunate that I'm part of this big scenario that's going on."

He's a part of it, sure. Heck, he's the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world preparing to step again onto the world's biggest stage at the Masters. A year ago, Els had legitimate chances to win all four major championships. He won none, but few would argue that his syrupy-smooth swing should be cutting through the rarified air where the Big Four breathe.

Still, when it comes to a pro golf rivalry, only two of the Big Four really make the cut. It is Tiger vs. Phil. Or Phil vs. Tiger. Take your pick.

It began in earnest a year ago, when the game's best last drove down Magnolia Lane and stepped around the azaleas and under the giant pines.

Mickelson's dramatic, 72nd-hole birdie putt at the Masters delivered him through the final frontier with a long awaited major championship.

Mickelson then was second at the U.S. Open, third at the British, and sixth at the PGA. It was a spectacular season, just a year removed from his worst as a pro when he finished outside of the top 30 on the PGA Tour money list.

When he and Woods came together, mano a mano, in the final round at Doral in late February it was golf's most anticipated pairing in quite some time.

Woods won, as had been the case in most of his previous match-ups against the lefty, but Mickelson never blinked. Even after Tiger scored an eagle to break a tie, Mickelson came back with two straight birdies to square things.

It was a battle worthy of the word classic, both of them doing their best steely-eyed, lip-sealed Ben Hogan impressions, sequestered in their own little worlds.

The prevailing thought is that they don't much like one another. It goes back a few years to when Woods switched to Nike clubs and Mickelson made some comment about the world's best golfer using inferior equipment. Woods never warmed to their ill-fated Ryder Cup partnership last September at Oakland Hills and hasn't said much since that might thaw the deep freeze.

Mickelson, though, lives with a perpetual grin on his puss and is nothing if not politically correct.

Asked yesterday if he considered Woods a rival, an acquaintance or a friend, Mickelson said, "A little bit of all three. I enjoy his company. I enjoy playing with him. I know that's not what has been written, but I think we have a really good relationship and that there's respect and we enjoy each other's company.

"I said [at Doral] and I'll say it again now, I want the opportunity to compete against him at his best. I came up a shot shy at Doral, but I enjoyed the competition. He was 6-under through 12 holes and I felt like he was playing his best. I enjoyed the challenge. Hopefully, we'll both play well and we'll have a chance to compete head-to-head this week."

Woods, meanwhile, is already wearing his game face. He said he "could not care less" about rivalries or Big Fours or any such thing.

"It's always fun to be in the final group with a chance to win and it just so happened to be Phil that week," he said. "As for that other stuff, I'm just worried about getting my ball in the hole. Is it good for golf? I don't know. I went through a stage when I was good for golf when I was beating everybody, and then I was bad for golf when I was beating anybody. So I don't know."

He does know, surely, that he has gone 10 major championships, since the 2002 U.S. Open, without a victory. No longer is he beating everybody.

Part of it was the result of yet another swing change.

"Last year, I was just getting started with the changes," Woods said. "This year, I'm putting the finishing touches on it. I've won twice so far this time and it's still coming. When I'm playing well, I like my chances."

Mickelson surely feels the same, especially with three victories already under his belt in 2005.

"I think it became very apparent in 2000-2001 that if we were going to compete and win tournaments with a player of Tiger's caliber, we were going to have to improve our game and get a lot better," Mickelson said. "It has been very exciting to have a number of guys competing and winning."

Singh, last year's $10 Million Man has one win and a trio of runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour this year. Els has two lucrative wins overseas.

So, at the top of their games, any of the Big Four could be in the mix come the back nine on Sunday, when the Masters traditionally becomes as edgy as any sporting drama.

But if a certain two of them steam into Amen Corner neck-and-neck, it will be anything but your typically sedate Sunday drive.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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