Tiger's' presence boosts Mickelson's game

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It used to be that when Tiger entered, a tournament would have an instant favorite.

That's still true, though nowadays it seems the favorite when Woods plays becomes Phil Mickelson.

The argument that Mickelson only gets up when Woods is in the field was advanced Thursday at Muirfield Village when the left-hander turned in a 5-under par 67 to finish two shots off the three-way first-round lead of Geoff Ogilvy, Justin Rose and Ricky Fowler.

Mickelson has bettered Woods the last five times they've played in the same event. In three of those tournaments -- last year's Tour Championship, the HSBC event in China and this year's Masters -- Mickelson went on to win.

Last week, with Woods still sitting out with a strained neck, a listless Mickelson missed the cut at the Colonial.

Woods, meanwhile, was, to be kind, not very sharp on Thursday. The closest birdie putt he had all day was 13 feet.

He finished at even par, in a tie for 50th, and is left with a mountain of bodies to climb over if he's to get into contention Sunday.

Woods' short game saved him on the front nine and when he found some kind of consistency with his long game on the back side, he was incapable of hitting wedges close on a greens softened by torrential rains.

Mickelson, for so long Salieri to Woods' Mozart, started slowly, making four pars, but went on to card five birdies without a bogey.

"It was a good start," Mickelson said, "I felt like the course was in great shape and without much wind and soft conditions there were a lot of birdies out there."

If Mickelson -- whose best finish at the Memorial is a tie for fourth in 2006 -- wins and Woods finishes outside the top four, Lefty will become world No. 1 for the first time in his career.

No player has spent more time inside the top ten without reaching No. 1.

"As I told Jack (Nicklaus) yesterday, it would mean a lot to me to win his tournament," said Mickelson.

Woods is a four-time winner at Jack's place and the defending champion. But he looked far from the man who soared home with a Sunday 65 -- not missing a single fairway -- last year.

"I haven't played, this is my 10th [competitive) round of the year and you're usually like that in January and here we are in June," Woods said. "I need competitive rounds."

Although their rivalry was bitter for many years, Mickelson and Woods have found a kind of detente over the past few years. Amy Mickelson's bout with breast cancer softened Woods and Mickelson's gone out of his way lately to be generous when asked about his rival.

"I have seen him hit shots that I don't know if anybody else in the world could ever possibly hit," Mickelson said recently. "He is an incredible player and talent, and he has one of the most impressive records, if not the most impressive record, in the history of the game. I won't ever underestimate him."

At The Players, Mickelson spoke revealingly about the arc of his rivalry with Woods.

"I've needed him to help me get my best golf out, and he has pushed me to work harder and he has pushed me to become a better player," he said. "And I get motivated when he's back in the field.

"I also feel that when he and I would play earlier on in my career, I didn't perform to my best of my abilities. And now I believe that when I'm paired with him or compete against him or with him, he gets my best golf out of me, or I find a way to play my best golf. I find that I need him for me to play my best."

Woods resists talking about a rivalry with Mickelson. For years he did this because he didn't think Mickelson had won enough hardware to be so flattered.

On Wednesday, Woods said talk of a rivalry in golf didn't mean as much as it did in other sports.

"If we're playing match play or playing one on one like say Federer and Nadal do, that's a totally different deal," he said. "We may be at the same event but we may not be in contention at the same time. But when we are, then we go at it. But it's getting to that point. It doesn't happen very often."

When he was pushed about Mickelson wanting the No. 1 ranking, Woods shrugged. "I think that's how it works," he said.

There's no doubt which of them has the upper hand in their personal battle, at least for now.

Though Woods said he was heartened to have hit some shots he hadn't been able to hit for a long time.

Principally he said a release fade with a seven iron into the ninth hole brought a smile to his face.

He almost looked like Tiger Woods in playing the shot.

"He's in there," Woods said ruefully, "Somewhere."