Tiger Woods is no longer the favorite heading into the Masters. His ranking has fallen to No. 7, while Phil Mickelson is No. 3.
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Since Tiger Woods' breakthrough Masters victory in April of 1997, Phil Mickelson has arrived at Augusta National, not to mention every other golf course for every other tournament, looking up at his nemesis.
No matter the quality of Mickelson's PGA Tour career or his growing major championship resume, Phil was always here and Tiger was up there.
Now, 14 years later, the view has changed.
Mickelson, the three-time and defending Masters champion, won last weekend in Houston and jumped to No. 3 in the world rankings while Woods has dropped from a lofty perch, in more ways than one, all the way to No. 7.
"It would really mean a lot if he was [No.] 1 at the time I passed him," Mickelson said Tuesday. "Yeah, that would be really cool."
Martin Kaymer of Germany, last year's PGA Championship winner, and Lee Westwood, the Brit who was runner-up at both the Masters and British Open in 2010, are 1-2 in the current rankings.
But those are just numbers. The American view of the sport centers around two men — Woods and Mickelson — and that order has pretty much been the pecking order for the longest time.
It has also been the order of favoritism heading into major championships since Wood established himself as the game's greatest talent.
"Doesn't matter," Woods all but snapped Tuesday. "You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. So [I've] just got to go out there and play and see where it adds up."
But didn't Woods report to Augusta every year feeling he was the man to beat?
"I came here … I was trying to get myself there on the back nine," Tiger said. "That's all I wanted to do. There's so much work that has to be done, 63 holes basically, to get to that back nine. I just want to be a part of that action and let the chips fall as they may. I just need to be part of that action. You need to be there, and then you can win those tournaments."
Mickelson would agree. When asked about his role as favorite, Phil said, "I don't know … It just means a lot to me to have won here and to be able to come back and be a part of this tournament."
The two of them have combined to win exactly half of the past 14 Masters. Woods' most recent of four titles came in 2005 while Mickelson broke through in 2004 and added wins in '06 and last spring.
The most recent was fashioned around one of the most memorable shots, a 6-iron from behind and between trees off pine straw to within four feet of the pin at the par-5 13th hole.
"At the time, it didn't look that hard," he said, pointing out that the biggest challenge was a "blind" shot because he was looking right into a tree trunk.
Mickelson and his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, like to joke that Bones gets one veto per calendar year. He tried to use it right there, but Mickelson was having none of it.
"As I said to him then, there's a point in every tournament where you have to take on some risk," Mickelson said. "It was a 6-iron for crying out loud. It wasn't like I was hitting a 3-wood there. I had a huge margin of error."
Taking risks has cost Mickelson dearly at times. On this occasion, it helped produce an emotional win as wife Amy, fighting cancer, showed up behind the 18th green to welcome him.
Woods finished in a tie for fourth last year, a somewhat surprising performance considering he had gone through a lengthy layoff while embroiled in a sex scandal.
"I'm just looking forward to this week," Woods said. "Last year was last year and this year is this year."
In the five Masters since his last victory, Woods' worst finish was a tie for sixth.
"Not putting well certainly has cost me a few Masters," Woods said, mostly referring to runner-up finishes to Zach Johnson in 2007 and to Trevor Immelman a year later. "I felt that I had a pretty good shot on a couple of different occasions to win on the back nine and just putted poorly. You can't be streaky here. You have to get it going, and you have to keep it going."
He was talking about putting, but he could have been referencing total dominance for more than a decade before going the past 18 months without a victory.
It has changed the pecking order among the two top Americans in the game, although Mickelson, whose win in Houston was his first since last year's Masters, isn't too caught up in it.
"[Tiger] and I both have some work to do on our games, as well as our performances in these tournaments, to move back up there," Mickelson said. "Then [being higher in the rankings] would mean a lot."
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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