On balance, Tiger Woods survived last week's Masters -- his first golf appearance on the public stage since his international sex scandal broke last November -- fairly well.

He finished in a fourth-place tie, did not get stoned by an angry mob and fielded all questions from the media with a reasonable simulacrum of openness.

Consequently, the buzz in golf this week has shifted from Woods's extramarital dalliances to the prospects for a genuine rivalry between Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won the Masters going away and moved to No. 2 in the world rankings.

The two will most likely face off again on April 29 at the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C., an event to which Woods has formally committed and Mickelson is expected to.

The consensus is they will do so as approximate equals, at least until Woods, by far the dominant player of the last dozen years, whips his game into shape. The Masters was his first tournament in five months.

But it's worth considering another possibility: that Mickelson and not Woods will, going forward, be The Man.

Mickelson played with precision in Augusta but also a newfound maturity. Woods, as the week wore on, leaked power. By the weekend his shoulders were slumping in resignation for the first time that I can recall. He seemed less inevitably the once and future sovereign of the game.

A lot was made of the contrast at the end of the Masters Sunday between Mickelson, shedding tears near the 18th green in a long embrace with his cancer-surviving wife, Amy, and Woods, alone and curt in his postround television interview.

When asked to put the week into perspective, he replied, "I finished fourth."

No gracious words about the other players and story lines, no thanks to the fans for receiving him warmly. (Although, to be fair, he had thanked the fans several times earlier in the week.)

But that comparison is about personality, not golf, and potentially leads down a dangerous path: putting St. Phil, the doting family man, on the same kind of pedestal that the media and golf fans put Woods on before his great toppling.

A more telling contrast, insofar as golf is concerned, occurred the day before.

Woods, mightily miffed that he had posted five bogeys in Saturday's round, went to the range afterwards and violently whacked balls with his driver for nearly 30 minutes. Then, darkness descending, with his retinue in tow like a funeral cortege, he marched slowly to the putting green.

His face said it all: It was stricken, wide-eyed, confused, quasi-panicked. He looked more like a scalded Calvinist than the Buddhist at peace he said he wants to become.

Meanwhile, in the media center, Mickelson was yucking it up with the press about how much fun he'd had Saturday monitoring the leaderboards.

"It doesn't really change the way I play too much, but I enjoy it. You see the roars and you try to figure out who did what, and the leaderboard tells you," he said.

The expression on his face was similarly revealing: it was confident, relaxed, ascendant. He was clearly digging the Masters as much as any fan.

One hesitates to read too much into any two moments, but those contrasting images have stayed with me this week.

The main golf point that Mickelson made throughout the week was how comfortable he felt at Augusta and, more generally, with his game. Even when he was yanking his drives and having to pitch out, he kept recovering.

"You don't have to be perfect," he said after his win. "I hit a lot of great shots, but I made some bad swings and I was able to salvage par. I was able to get at the ball, advance it far enough down by the green where my short game could take over."

This was, in essence, the same point that Woods advanced a decade ago, when he was all but unchallengeable. He bragged he was able to win even with his "B" game.

Mickelson rendered his version more tactfully, but it still has the power to get into his opponents' minds. Like Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, he cannot be killed off.

Jack Nicklaus and Woods both achieved a level of domination that intimidated other players. Coming down the stretch, this is huge. Rivals believe they can't afford mistakes, and therefore often make them.

Mickelson, heretofore, has generally not scared his opponents. He has just as much natural talent as Messrs. Woods and Nicklaus, if not more. He bonded with the game while still in diapers and won a PGA Tour event as an amateur.

But he has never shown the drive to win at all costs the way Woods has. He likes spending time with his family too much, and playing with his expensive toys.

When it comes to intimidation, he has also had other disadvantages. One is his physicality: the chipmunk cheeks, the man boobs, the too-tight shirts, the caddish haircut.

However superficial such issues are, he rubs a lot of golf fans the wrong way and inspires them to ridicule. Another is his sometimes goofy, know-it-all personality. He signs as many autographs as anyone in the game, but inside the clubhouse he hangs with his fellow Tour pros even less than Woods does.

Plus he does strange things like read books ("A Brief History of Time," anyone?) and lets everyone know about it. At the 2007 Presidents Cup dinner, he lectured from the podium about the proper way to cut gas prices.

There is also his tendency to take risks on the course. He's been a mischievous baby Mozart grown up, more enthralled by daring shots than by grinding out wins. Rivals coming down the stretch can't dismiss the possibility that Mickelson will do something even dumber than they will.

But that was then, and Mickelson, now approaching 40, shows signs of having a longer perspective, of wanting to consolidate his golf legacy. Perhaps that's a result of having to deal this past year with the breast cancer diagnoses of both his mother and his wife, to whom he dedicated his Masters win.

In the final round Sunday, he did pull off one spectacularly daring shot, the six-iron from the trees on No. 13 to four feet from the hole, replayed endlessly on television. But as he explained afterward, it wasn't all that much more difficult a shot than a lay-up would have been. It was a well-considered risk.

Significantly, he had no bogeys at all in that round, a 67, as he authoritatively sealed his victory.

Time will tell whether Mickelson's Masters performance portends a Tour-dominating breakthrough. The U.S. Open in June, with its tight fairways and thick rough, is a tougher match for his game.

Woods, of course, could respond by going on a tear himself. All of the year's remaining majors are on courses where he has done well: Pebble Beach in California, St. Andrews in Scotland and Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

But if Woods is to surge back into form, he will have to fix more than his rusty swing. For one thing, he will have to find a way to channel his anger at bad shots --- a goal he spoke about at the beginning of last week -- without diluting his intensity. At the Masters after errant shots, trying hard to stifle his fury, he was like Samson with shorn locks, unable to fight back.

Solutions for Woods may be hard to come by. He will probably need new tools, ones that swing coaches can't give him. Perhaps, with time, his commitment to Buddhism will prove crucial.

Buddhism is not so much a theology as it is a practice, and practice is something Woods is very good at.