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With Mickelson's win, spotlight swings back to Tiger

WP: Woods' 'slump' now biggest story in golf
TIGER WOODS REACTS TO TEE SHOT ON 12TH HOLE DURING MASTERS THIRD ROUND
Tiger Woods has failed to win his past seven majors.Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Now that Phil Mickelson has won a major and we never have to ask again, "Phil, when are you going to win a major?" we can aim the searing light of interrogation on somebody else. You know who that somebody is, don't you?

It's Tiger.

Now we get to ask, "Tiger, when are you going to win a major?"

It's seven and counting since he won one, you know.

No, it's not going to be Davis Love III or Justin Leonard. Jim Furyk or David Toms. Mike Weir and Retief Goosen have already won majors. Nope, nobody in that group inspires any particular emotion. People love Freddie Couples and Nick Price, but they're in their 40s, close to done. Vijay is great, but sadly nobody has warmed to him. People are fascinated with John Daly, but you can't actually rely on Daly. He's closer to a fifth wife than a third major. Did you see the other day in Augusta where he miscalculated the score he needed to make the cut? Daly is a bad country-and-western song, but hardly golf's future.

It's Tiger. Now that we don't have Phil to kick around anymore, all of our attention is going back to Tiger.

At every news conference, at every charity event. At Fort Bragg, N.C., where Tiger has gone for a week of military training, some drill sergeant will probably ask him how in the world he finished 22nd at the Masters. Isn't it some swing of irony that Phil and Tiger have, momentarily anyway, switched places? It's all kisses and candy for Phil, while it's dissection time for Tiger. What do you think the theme of the U.S. Open is going to be going into the tournament? It won't be "Can Phil win back-to-back?" It won't be "When is Sergio Garcia going to win his first major?" because Garcia is just 24 years old.

It's going to be, "Can Tiger end his drought?" (as if everybody else wouldn't kill for Tiger's record in majors in the new millennium). Is there something wrong with Tiger's swing? Is there something wrong with his left knee? Can he recapture the magic at the ripe old age of 28?

Of course, I've got the solutions to Tiger's problems, just the way you'd expect a 14-handicap to have it all figured out. Since your friendly neighborhood columnist is paid to know everything (Hey, I had Connecticut beating Georgia Tech in the final and I had Mickelson winning Masters, so shut up!) here we go: All Tiger has to do is remain a bachelor, bring back Butch Harmon and start playing more frequently. That's it.

I cringed when I heard Tiger, upon getting engaged to the stunningly beautiful Elin Nordegren, say he was looking forward to the balance and harmony she would bring to his life. No doubt Tiger will be kinder and gentler, he'll find balance. If Tiger starts moonlighting as a yoga instructor, then balance is just what he'll need. Let me ask you this: Will a balanced life help him if he's standing over an eight-foot twister on Sunday afternoon at Shinnecock Hills, one stroke down with two to play? Don't the best years of a truly great athlete's life come early in his career when he's selfish and maniacally consumed with whatever his game is, when all he does is practice, play, carouse and start the cycle all over again, when he is absolutely and totally without balance and calm? If Elin refuses to wait for him, Tiger can simply go on "The Bachelor." Hey, it's working for Giants quarterback Jesse Palmer. What, you don't think Tiger as "The Bachelor" would pull in bigger numbers than a third-string quarterback?

Anyway, if there's a relationship Tiger needs perhaps it's with Butch Harmon. Tiger cut back on his time with Harmon at the 2002 PGA, then indicated last year that coach-pupil relationship had been severed. So, put some tape on it and repair it. Tiger is 0-5 in majors since breaking it off with Butch. Meantime, Darren Clarke is playing some of the best golf of his career now that he's spending more time with Butch.

I'll admit, wanting Tiger to play more is selfish. Does somebody out there want to make the case that he or she doesn't like watching Tiger play, that it's somehow bad for the sport when he's in a tournament? Of course not. Sunday's final round of the Masters didn't need Tiger because the back-and-forth between Mickelson and Ernie Els, and Chris DiMarco, Garcia, Bernhard Langer and K.J. Choi before that was riveting. Quite possibly, Sunday's final round will be the most suspenseful day of sports this year. Even so, think of how much better it would have been had Tiger been in the mix.

Beyond the selfishness of wanting to see the world's best, consider this: In the last three years Tiger played 19 events (in 2001), then 18 in '02 and 18 last year (winning five each year). In 1999, while he was rebuilding his swing and starting to light it up, Tiger played in 20 events and won eight times. In 2000 he played in 20 events and won nine times.

By comparison, look at his closest competitors. While Tiger played 18 events last year Vijay Singh played 27, Mickelson played 23, Els 22, Love 23 and Weir 21.

Not long ago, Jack Nicklaus said Tiger's peers should be embarrassed that he'd so easily lapped them, made them look like chumps. Because Tiger raised the bar so high, the other golfers were left with no choice but to get fitter and practice harder.

Nicklaus, whose 18 majors Tiger is chasing, went 12 straight majors without winning one from 1967 to 1970. Tiger may be encountering the first time in his life when it's time to marshal all the resources at his disposal to answer back. That may be the best test of athletic greatness: what you do when it suddenly becomes harder to win, when you lose a parent or have a serious injury or find yourself face-to-face with a worthy rival or rivals.

Anyway, the way Phil won his first major -- dropping birdies on five of his last seven holes to beat Els, who had dropped two eagles and shot 67 -- is storybook stuff. But the very next time out, it's still all about Tiger. And my bet is that Tiger will feel challenged now, that his already-scheduled trip to Fort Bragg for military training will stimulate something new in him, that he's going to be more popular than ever because he has gone from a god to something close to mortal. The men who found themselves being dominated for two years answered Nicklaus's challenge and have kept Tiger out of the winner's circle in the tournaments that have mattered most seven straight times. Clearly, the ball is in Tiger's court, and what he does next is what will keep us fascinated.