AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson left Augusta National last April as a legitimate rival, and threat, to Tiger Woods. Mickelson had just won his second Masters in three years, his second straight major championship and his second straight PGA Tour event, having won the previous week by 13 strokes.
It seemed realistic to think that Mickelson might eventually pass Woods in the world rankings had he won last year's U.S. Open at Winged Foot, something Mickelson appeared on the verge of doing until he double-bogeyed the final hole to lose by one stroke.
What happened to Mickelson on that forgettable Father's Day has followed him for the past 10 months, and will likely accompany him when play begins in the 71st Masters tomorrow at Augusta National Golf Club. Even Mickelson conceded that his confidence isn't where it was a year ago.
"Last year was the best-case scenario [coming into the Masters], to win by 13, not have any stress, I knew I was playing well," Mickelson said. "I feel like I'm playing well, but the scores have not been reflecting it the last two weeks, so I'm a little bit nervous about that, too."
Though the debate about whether he will ever challenge Woods for the No. 1 ranking disappeared in the aftermath of his collapse at Winged Foot, Mickelson seems resigned to simply being given consideration as the second-best player of his generation.
"If I have a great rest of my career, and I go out and win 20 more tournaments and seven more majors to get 50 wins and 10 majors, which would be an awesome career, I still won't get to where he's at today," said Mickelson, 36.
One thing is certain: Mickelson is not the first, and will likely not be the last, to falter while trying to compete with a player many consider the best ever.
David Duval got to No. 1 in 1999 and won his only major at the 2001 British Open, but quickly disappeared. By 2005, Duval missed the cut in 19 of the 20 tournaments he entered. Last year's tie for 16th at the U.S. Open was considered a major accomplishment for Duval.
Ernie Els, whose victory in the 2002 British Open made some think the laid-back South African was finally going to live up to the promise he demonstrated early in his career, hasn't won on the PGA Tour since 2004, was slowed by a knee injury in 2005 and, at 37, is considered an afterthought here.
Vijay Singh, who displaced Woods in the rankings by winning nine tournaments in 2004, began to show his age (now 44) last year when he won only once and missed the cut at the British Open and PGA Championship. Singh has rejuvenated the rivalry talk with two wins this year, most recently at Bay Hill. Even Jim Furyk, who despite rising to No. 2 in the rankings with a pair of victories last year, was never considered more than a rich man's Fred Funk, and couldn't sustain the push he made.
In other words, trying to beat Woods seems to take its toll on everyone else.
"A lot of other guys have had talent, breakthrough talent, but never really showed it the way Tiger has," Els said. "He's really come through more than I think a lot of people expected. But he's showed a lot of dedication through the last 10 years."
In the 10 years since Woods broke through with his record-setting 12-stroke victory at the Masters, he has added 11 more major championships to what has become a legend rather than merely a resume. In that span, Mickelson has transformed himself from a player known for blowing majors to winning three in two years.
Asked how difficult it was to sustain that level of play, Mickelson said, "It's challenging. But that's a fun challenge. It's what every player likes to take on. Doesn't always go the way you want it to, but it's fun to get your game up for each major championship because each requires a different style."
Mickelson admittedly struggled after what happened at Winged Foot. In the British Open and PGA Championship, each won by Woods, Mickelson finished tied for 22nd and 16th, respectively. His season concluded when Mickelson went winless (0-4-1) at the Ryder Cup in Ireland, where the U.S. was trounced.
"I've had to overcome tough losses in the past," Mickelson said yesterday. "Certainly Winged Foot was a tough loss. Shinnecock was a tough loss [in the 2004 U.S. Open]. I doubled 17 there to lose and had to come back from that.
"Losing the PGA in '01 after three-putting 16 was probably the hardest because I had not won a major at the time. Didn't know for sure if I could do it. But I'm not really thinking about the U.S. Open as much as I am trying to defend my Masters championship."
What Mickelson, and the rest of the field, will be trying to do this week is stop Woods from winning his third straight major championship and creeping closer to the record of 18 by the legendary Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson smiles when reminded of how Woods had to put the green jacket on his shoulders last year.