Phil Mickelson vs. Tiger Woods in PGA Championship finale would be nirvana for golf fans

Jamie Squire

Forget the 20- and 30-somethings; heading into the final major of the season, Tiger and Phil are the ones to beat.

Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson, Sunday at Oak Hill? Yes, please.

What golf fan would not root for the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 to go at each other in the final major of the season for bragging rights to a 2013 campaign in which each has excelled?

"The two of them going head-to-head, that would be something special," Butch Harmon, Lefty’s current coach and one of Tiger’s exes, told FoxSports.com’s Robert Lusetich prior to the Masters in April.

While an Augusta pairing did not pan out, the same sentiment holds true this week for the golfers many view as this era’s Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- Woods with more wins and a technician’s approach to the game, and the affable Mickelson (his cautious British Open strategy notwithstanding) winning fans with his gambler’s approach to the game.

Tiger has had more than a few would-be rivals over the years, but Phil is the one guy who won’t go the way of David Duval, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, and most recently, Rory McIlroy. And while Woods leads the marquee duo in major titles (14-5) and PGA Tour wins (79-42), Mickelson has clawed his way back into the competition over the last several years. Indeed, the 43-year-old southpaw has added two majors to his resume in the five years since his 37-year-old colleague chalked up his most recent grand slam event at the 2008 U.S. Open.

The two have rarely met down the stretch of a major, though the Tiger and Phil Show at the 2009 Masters -- when Mickelson put on a birdie barrage out of the gate, with Woods outdoing him with an eagle on the par-5 eighth -- was a tilt for the ages. Neither legend slipped on the green jacket that season but if ever there were a year when the stars align to pit the two against each other in another major finale, it would be 2013.

"We've had our fair share of head‑to‑head battles. For me it's been three guys over the course of my career. It's been Vijay, Phil, and Ernie [Els]. Those are the three guys I have bucked heads with...all over the world....It’s been fun," Woods told reporters Sunday after his seven-shot victory over Keegan Bradley and Henrik Stenson at the Bridgestone. "When Phil and I have battled, it's been in big events and we've shot some pretty good rounds together and against each other."

Woods comes into the week fresh off his eighth victory at Firestone and fifth of the season. Still in search of that 15th major, Tiger hopes to go back-to-back as Mickelson did when he won the Scottish Open the week before capturing the Open Championship.

And then there’s Phil, who will have to shrug off the post-British Open fatigue that shackled him at the Bridgestone if he’s to cadge his second major in a span of 18 days.

"I wasn't as sharp this week as I needed to be, as I need to be next week," Mickelson conceded after finishing T21 on Sunday.

There’s also an off-the-course dynamic at work in the Woods-Mickelson rivalry. Fans have always viewed Phil as a devoted family man, a stature he bolstered after returning from his cross-country flight from his daughter Amanda’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony and almost winning his first U.S. Open.

Woods, whose reputation took a huge hit when his personal life went horribly awry, has recently shown a mellower side outside the ropes. And when he hoisted son Charlie up to his shoulders after his victory on Sunday, he won new fans touched by the sweet moment.

Even the purported rift between the two superstars has healed over the years. That’s partly due, according to Lusetich, to Woods replacing former caddie Steve Williams, who was not shy about his animosity for Lefty, with Joe LaCava, who’s a good pal of Mickelson’s bagman Jim Mackay.

But all that is background noise to what could transpire at Oak Hill, since Mickelson has made his battles with Woods an actual rivalry over the past several years.

"He seems to bring out the best in me," Mickelson told reporters after clobbering Woods in their face-to-face matchup in the final round of the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which Phil won by two strokes over Charlie Wi. "And the last four or five years, I've played some of my best golf playing with him and I really enjoy it."

Both golfers enter the week at the top of their games (with the exception of Mickelson’s most recent clunker at Firestone and Woods’ lackluster performance at Muirfield), seemingly fit and healthy, and aiming to pick off the last major of the year.

"He’s hungrier than he’s ever been and you can’t understate how much he wants to compete and do well," Mackay told Hank Gola of the New York Daily News after the Open Championship. "I joke around with him all the time, when he’s 60-something years old, he’s going to be on that putting green at Augusta thinking he’s got a chance. That’s just how he’s built."

As for Woods, the goal remains the same as it’s ever been.

"Do I want [to win a major] any more [than in the past]? No, it's the same," Woods said Sunday night. "Each and every major, I always want them. I've been successful 14 times, and hopefully next week will be 15."

The fun begins Thursday. Though a slew of young guns and major champions could well make a Tiger-Phil showdown an afterthought, the golf world waits to see if, as GolfChannel.com’s Jason Sobel put it, Tiger can "pull a Phil" this week.

More golf from SB Nation:

Tiger Woods and an impossible standard

Adding to the record books in Akron

Tiger and son Charlie celebrate Firestone win | Another $1.5 million payday for golf's richest man

• GIFS 'Psychotic' squirrel invades Firestone | The best Tiger birdie celebration

Michelle Wie a surprise captain's pick for Solheim Cup

PGA sets tee times, pairings for season's final major

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