A wedge betwen them

THEY MAKE quite the pair. But identical twins they are not, even if each has the flop shot in his bag, the private jet waiting at the airport and "made in California" stamped in their passports. Instead, let's say mirror images. One is sugar and spice and "golly gee" nice. The other is a stone-faced and cold-eyed killer. One is "aw shucks" in times of stress; the other typically goes with "what the !**@!?@!"

One inspires love and affection, both for his style of play and his sincere – albeit occasionally schmaltzy – acknowledgement of those behind the ropes; the other, if he cares even a little bit, makes do with merely distant admiration of his greatness. One signs autographs until there is no one left to sign for; the other acts as if there is never anyone he wants to sign for.

And your last clue: one has won three major championships and flirted with victory in at least twice as many others; the other owns 14 Grand Slam titles and should, at least in the depths of his one-track mind, have acquired maybe half as many again.

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Anyway, there they were last Sunday, together again at Augusta National, golf's most interesting double act: Eldrick and Phil, Tiger and Lefty, Woods and Mickelson, number one and number two. And what a show they put on, albeit as ultimately nothing more than a warm-up act for the new champion Angel Cabrera and his play-off sidekicks, good ol' boys Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell. Never mind, they provided more than three hours of golfing magic between them, with differing displays of genius no one else in the game can currently match.

Out in a spectacular and meagre 30 blows, Mickelson took himself to the brink of a third green jacket, before depositing his tee-shot in the water fronting the 12th green and later missing a succession of short and shortish putts. Woods, fighting what he would later call his "band-aid" swing, clung on through sheer strength of will as only he can, only to be outdone by first his inability to birdie a par-4, then his failure to make even a par on the last two holes. In the end, it was Lefty who won the battle, 67 to 68, even as both lost the war.

"It was fantastic," said Jim "Bones" McKay, Phil's caddie. "You could tell they were having a great time, saying 'good shot' to each other. It was the most fun I've ever had on a golf course."

Sadly, that was not a view shared by a morose and monosyllabic Woods, who stalked off to his waiting car with nary a backward glance. Mickelson, however, was typically philosophical and in fact hung around long enough to watch the end of the tournament on television. No one in golf has the ability to shrug off failure and not second-guess himself like the game's greatest ever southpaw.

"I've gotten myself into contention playing the way that I do, so it is hard to blame that when I don't win," he told this newspaper last July. "Yes, being so aggressive may have penalised me in certain instances. But I don't regret how I have played in majors; it has led to me winning three of them."

In contrast, Woods was livid at the end of a week in which he never achieved anything like full control of his shots and swing. Both his coach, Hank Haney, and caddie, Steve Williams, had more than once felt the sharp edge of the Tiger's tongue, never more so than in the immediate wake of the second round. Having shot 72, Woods repaired to the practice range where he proceeded to loudly and profanely berate a red-faced Haney, Williams having already taken the sensible option and walked away.

Woods' irritation was no surprise, of course. Having hit one club too many to the final green, the four-time Masters winner had chipped all the way back to the front of the putting surface maybe 50 feet from the cup, a shot that provoked one of his least attractive on-course habits – a massive and contemptuous gob on to the pristine lawn. Such not-so-great expectorations are just one example of the arrogance that comes with the certain knowledge that one is above the rules governing mere mortals.

Mickelson, it would seem, is more able to keep on-course failure in perspective, certainly more than the driven Woods. And most of the time, the 38-year-old San Diegan is more fun to be around, a fact that carries with it a certain irony. Although both are world-class needlers, it is Woods, not Mickelson, who is more popular with his contemporaries on tour. For too many, Phil's 'know-it-all' persona is more annoying than amiable. Little wonder then that he was one of the first recipients of the popular tour acronym/nickname, FIGJAM (F**k I'm Good Just Ask Me).

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Indeed, it is hard to find too many fellow pros with who Mickelson has more than a passing and cursory relationship. Woods, in contrast, has regular practice round cronies, guys like Bubba Watson, Charles Howell, Chris Riley and, in days gone by, Mark O'Meara and John Cook.

Then again, Mickelson is hardly devoid of a sense of humour. Less than two weeks ago at the traditional Tuesday evening Champion's Dinner, he got stuck into, of all people, Nick Faldo. Standing next to the six-time major winner for the official photograph, the present world number two didn't miss the past number one. The trash-talking conversation went something like this:

Phil (loud enough for everyone to hear): "Gee Nick, I didn't realise that you are such a big guy. How come you used to hit it so short?"

Faldo: "Listen Phil, when you shoot 19 under par to win the Open at St Andrews you can start giving me a hard time."

Phil: "I understand that. But how come you hit it like such a pussy?"

Faldo: "I played golf the proper way."

Phil: "Yeah, like my wife."

As for the relationship between Woods and Mickelson themselves, many have been the hints that all is not exactly hunky dory. As long ago as 2003 Phil announced in an interview that Tiger was playing with "inferior equipment" and that Tiger "hates it that I can fly it past him now." That both assertions were spot on was somehow lost in the storm of fake indignation brewed up by the Woods camp and fostered by a fawning media that, in American parlance, way too often "kisses Tiger's ass."

Then there was the inevitable indiscreet comment from Williams, a man whose ego is dwarfed only by that of his employer. Earlier this year, the New Zealander announced to the world that he has "no respect" for Mickelson and that the happily married father-of-three is nothing more than "a p****." Happily, Phil treated the remarks with the contempt they deserved, making it clear that the thoughts of an uneducated bagman who carries luggage for a living were of little concern.

Still, even when Phil and wife Amy sent the Woods family a present to celebrate the birth of daughter Sam, there was an edge to the gesture. The miniature ping-pong table was a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that, at every Ryder Cup, Lefty is too good for his teammate when it comes to table tennis. (Rumour has it that Tiger has searched out expert coaching in order to rectify that situation next time round).

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Speaking of the Ryder Cup, no investigation into the lack of kinship felt between the two is complete without mention of the car crash that was their "partnership" at Oakland Hills in 2004. Played two, lost two was their pointless record that day, the lasting impression of which was the sight of a straight-faced Tiger trying desperately not to crack up laughing as Phil sent his/their tee-shot on the 18th hole 50 yards left of its intended target.

Then there is the connection each 'enjoys' with the media. While Mickelson, if one ignores his all- American tendency to say what he perceives as the "right thing", can be both engaging and witty, a Woods press conference is invariably a complete waste of time. Tiger long ago mastered the art of talking a lot and saying nothing. Both men employ agents whose main function appears to be to say "no" to everything. Actually, that is unfair. While the Woods camp routinely and thoughtlessly declines each and every request, it has been known for Mickelson to sit down for the odd one-on-one interview. Plus, having been to dinner with both men over the years, I can attest to the fact that a) Phil is more fun to be around and b) he at least makes an attempt to be interesting and interested.

Six years ago, writer Tom Callahan authored a book, In Search Of Tiger, built around a trip to Vietnam to find the man for whom Woods was nicknamed, his father Earl's army buddy, Tiger Phong. The book was enough of a success to be short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the year award. It didn't win, but part of Callahan's prize was a free 1,000 bet with the competition sponsor. After much thought, he settled on a double: Sean Penn to win the best actor Oscar and Phil Mickelson – then coming off a relatively bleak season – to win the 2004 Masters.

Both, as luck would have it, came in and Callahan pocketed a substantial sum, a fact that was announced to Mickelson during a practice round for the US Open at Shinnecock Hills later that summer. Ever since, he has jokingly asked Callahan for "my share of the bet." Tiger, about whom the book was largely written, has, not surprisingly, never acknowledged its existence, even though he accompanied the author and his father to meet the Phong family at their home in Washington State.

So there is little love lost. Nor can there ever be, as long as the precious Woods feels even remotely threatened by Mickelson. The loss and the problem, one feels, are Tiger's.