At ease Mickelson steals Woods’ thunder

PHIL MICKELSON, by and large, is a delightful man, friendly, courteous, co-operative.

It may all be an act, of course, but whether Tiger Woods fans like it or not, it was the caucasian from San Diego rather than the African-American from Orlando who made the most favourable impression when they arrived back to back in the media centre at Pinehurst yesterday.

Whereas Tiger flashed those pearly white teeth and elaborated on the questions he wanted to hear and went monosyllabic on those he didn't like, Mickelson was open and warm and apparently fully at ease with himself.

There will be those who maintain forever that the abject failure of their partnership in last September's Ryder Cup was due more to a lack of empathy between them than to any limitations in their respective golf games. That may well be the case although interestingly enough they do agree on many elements of the golf game. For instance, by and large they accept that the Pinehurst course will play very much as it did when it first staged the championship in 1999.

"They've lengthened a few holes but with the added yardage we get from technology, we're driving it in the same spot so it doesn't really matter," reasoned Woods. "The course is playing a little bit more difficult because of the rough. It seems like it's thicker, higher and the ball seems to be settling down in the bottom every single time. The areas around the greens are nowhere as good as they were in '99, the ball is bouncing a lot more, but everybody has got to deal with that."

"The course today is very similar to how it was early in the week in '99, Mickelson said. "It's very hard, very fast and the greens are firm. I think the winning score will be much higher than it was in '99 because we got rain that week and none is expected this time.

This part of North Carolina was one of the most central in the American civil war and emotions still tend to run a little high when the colour of people's skins are discussed. On this occasion, however, the debate ignored the remarkable comments in the recently published "Who's Afraid of the Big Black Man" by former basketball star Charles Barkley, in which the considerable racial abuse Woods allegedly suffered in his youth was exposed. My American press colleagues claim the majority of them didn't know about the book or because what it contained was "no more than a tempest in a teapot." Instead, the debate surrounded the fact that Woods remains the only African American on the US Tour.

"I thought there would be more of us out here but then again it's a case of having a base big enough," he says. "At the junior level, there are players with some talent. As you move up in levels, the process of screening kind of weeds them out. It's hard to make it out here. A lot of these kids don't have the opportunity to practice and play and compete in junior events around the country. I've seen enough of them in college to be excited about them getting an education and opportunities to further themselves but we need more kids to be introduced to the game and hopefully that will facilitate more African American golfers."

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