There was a popular belief throughout the week leading up to the PGA Championship that this would finally be the major where we saw Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the two most popular and dominant players of the last 20 years, finally go head-to-head in the ring on Sunday at a major.
Halfway through the 95th edition of the PGA, there's still a good chance that Tiger and Phil will play together on Sunday at Oak Hill. It's just more likely it will be early in the day in relative obscurity before the leaders ever get to the first tee. Phil will tee off on Saturday at 10:25 a.m. ET and Tiger will be out just 40 minutes later, a good four hours ahead of the leaders. After Jason Dufner, and others, took advantage of perfect scoring conditions at Oak Hill on Friday, Mickelson will start the final 36 holes at an 11-shot deficit while Tiger must make up a 10-shot margin.
We are only at the midpoint of the season's final major, so can the top two players in the world actually get back in it? And what do they need to shoot to get there?
Saturday at golf tournaments is typically known as moving day -- it's the last opportunity for a player to get in position to have a shot on Sunday. The conditions at Oak Hill on Saturday will remain favorable. There was enough water dumped on the historic layout that low numbers will be there -- the greens soft and receptive to pinpoint approach shots that set up great birdie putts. The flags are mostly located at the back of the greens on Saturday, making it tougher to spin approach shots close. But the receptive surfaces, and birdie opportunities, are still there.
So Tiger and Phil will have their shot to go low. How low do they need to post? A round of 5-under 65 would seem to be the minimum score needed, with a score one or two shots better ideal. Yes, that's major championship scoring record territory but that's where these two superstars are at after middling and poor rounds to begin their week. And that would be just the first step in a historic weekend comeback.
A Saturday round of 64 or 65 still won't get them up near the leaders, and it's the kind of run they would need to replicate on Sunday in order to get in the mix. The final score is almost certainly going to be in double digits after these first two days of perfect scoring conditions. Oak Hill is going to get tougher, but it's not going to get fiery and run out.
Both Phil and Tiger must go out in 31 or 32, which is doable. They will need to play the first four holes in two-under. The par-5 at No. 4 is a must-make birdie. The 570-yard par-5 is the easiest hole on the course, and just one of two par-5s at Oak Hill. Even though it's playing as the easiest hole, Phil has played it in 2-over so far this week and Tiger has been 1-over. That absolutely cannot happen on Saturday. Both players will get super aggressive and go for it, and there has to be a red number there.
The second par-5 at No.13 is also a must-make birdie. This is a true three-shot hole, with no players entertaining the thought of getting home in two. Woods has been taking irons off the tee. But even though it takes three shots to get to the green, that third approach shot is usually with wedge and allows the players to throw a dart at the pin. We saw Tiger stick it to within a foot on Thursday morning and both will need to do that again on Saturday.
So the two par-5s are must-make birdies, and there will be plenty of other chances to pick up red numbers. We saw Adam Scott get hot with the putter on the front side on Thursday to roll off five straight birdies. That's the kind of streak both need. The chances are sprinkled in there throughout this legendary course. But beyond those, they must avoid bogeys -- which lurk at some of Oak Hill's tougher holes, like Nos. 7, 17, and 18. There will be chances for eight or nine birdies, but those par saves on those holes will be more crucial to these desperate attempts to be a factor this weekend.
Both Tiger and Phil are obviously struggling with their game. Phil said on Friday that the course was setup perfectly to separate those players who are playing really well, such as his playing partners Adam Scott and Justin Rose, from those who are a bit off and not in form, like FIGJAM. It has done that through the first 36 holes. On Thursday, Mickelson, who came into the event saying he's playing the best golf of his life, walked straight to the range after his round to work on his swing with Butch Harmon. He called his swing coach out of the SkySports TV booth for the emergency session in the gloaming.
Mickelson walked away saying he needed to go in the low 60s on Friday to have a chance. That obviously did not happen, and he actually went back a shot to make things more dire.
Then on Friday, it was Tiger's turn for an impromptu post-round session with his swing doctor, Sean Foley. Woods was seen on the range with the sun coming down, surrounded by Foley, caddie Joe LaCava, and agent Mark Steinberg. With repeated misses out to the right on Friday, it looked like some serious work with Foley to try and get things back on track. Foley told Golf Channel's Notah Begay that Tiger was too far away at address, prompting his swing to come under and be a little off-plane. The instruction even carried over into the parking lot.
There was some startling symmetry watching the top two, who finished their first round with a double bogey to tumble over par, trying to sort out their swing late at night on the Oak Hill range with their celebrity swing coaches.
The bad thing about the conditions being so soft through the first two days is that it allowed lots of players, who weren't necessarily on point with their ball striking, to hang around. The fairways and greens are soft, so you could get away with mishits still sticking in the short stuff instead of running out. That forgiveness will likely dwindle over the next 36 holes, but the birdie chances will still be there.
The problem for Tiger and Phil is that there are so, so many players between their pedestrian scores and Jason Dufner's 9-under. When asked if he still had a shot, Tiger was realistic on Friday night about all the talent ahead of him:
I'm so far back that if the leaders go ahead and run off with it and shoot a low one tomorrow, I'm going to be pretty far behind. I have got to do my job tomorrow and go out there and post something in the mid to low 60s, like some of the guys did today. Some of the guys were 7‑under through 14, 7‑under through 14. It definitely can be done.
Mixed in that statement is resignation that this tournament is completely out of Tiger's hands. No matter what he does, he admits that the guys ahead of him could run away with it.
And that's the issue Tiger and Phil are facing. They could go out and shoot a 64 to get to 4 and 5-under, but this leaderboard is not stocked with no-name one-hit wonders. It's loaded with the creme of the world rankings, the best players who either have majors already or have repeatedly contended at majors. There's just too many world-class guys --
-- that it's hard to see the final number not increasing into double digits, potentially even into the teens. And then there's the set under-par who are still starting a couple shots ahead --
There's not just a lot of names, there are a lot of world-class names. It seems that almost the entire top 25 in the world is in contention and ahead of Tiger and Phil. Instead of Tiger and Phil, it's Rose and Scott now going for the Player of the Year honors with a second major of the season.
So even if Woods and Lefty post a number in the low 60s, this thing is likely over for the top two, who so many expected to go head-to-head for the final major title of the 2013 season. We'll know for sure within the first hour here on Saturday.