PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Tiger Woods keeps saying his game is close.
Standing on the 18th green at Pebble Beach, he never looked so far away.
With the red sleeves from his shirt sticking out from a black vest, Woods could only watch Sunday as Phil Mickelson made one more birdie putt for an 8-under 64, the final touch of a six-shot comeback to win the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
The white scoreboard behind the 18th green was telling.
The first stunner was seeing Mickelson go from a six-shot deficit to a two-shot lead in just six holes. Then he poured it on with a magnificent shot into 2 feet for birdie on the 13th and an aggressive play on the 14th for another one.
Equally shocking was Woods.
He three-putted for par and a 75, a whopping 11 shots worse than Mickelson. Only four other players had a higher score than Woods in the final round, none of whom started the day within range of the leader.
Woods was two shots out of the lead when he walked off the sixth green and then bogeyed the next three holes.
The two biggest names in golf played together in the second-to-last group, both feeling as though they were close to breaking through, both needed a dramatic charge at Pebble Beach.
That player turned out to be Mickelson.
In a big way.
“To put it together this week, and especially the final round, just feels terrific,” Mickelson said. “And it gives me a lot of confidence, but also inspires me. Because I believe now that what I’m doing is correct, and that I’m able to play some of my best golf.”
Woods attributed this mess to only one club in his bag — the putter.
The putting carried him to a 67 at Pebble Beach in the third round, giving him a chance to win for the first time since Sept. 13, 2009 on the PGA Tour. It let him down Sunday, when he missed five putts from under 5 feet.
“I could not get comfortable where I could see my lines,” Woods said. “I couldn’t get the putter to swing. I just could not get comfortable. It was frustrating, because I was looking to somehow getting off to 2- or 3-under par through six. Phil got off to that start. I had a chance to pick it up through the middle part of the round. Instead, it went the other way.”
Lost in all this was Charlie Wi, who started the final round with a three-shot lead. Wi four-putted for double bogey on the opening hole, dropped another shot on the fifth, then three-putted from 15 feet for bogey on the sixth. Only a late rally gave him a 72 to finish two shots behind Mickelson for his fifth career runner-up finish.
The win gave Mickelson his 40th career victory — his goal is to get to 50, and this will help. He also became the third straight winner on the PGA Tour to start the final round at least six shots behind.
And to do it with Woods as a mere bystander?
“I just feel very inspired when I play with him,” said Mickelson, who has posted the better score the past five times he has played alongside Woods in the final round.
“I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf. I hope that he continues to play better and better, and I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more in the final rounds.”
Mickelson took more satisfaction over having his wife, still recovering from breast cancer, come up for the weekend and even give him a pep talk when Mickelson was going nowhere in the second round.
“I was moping. It was terrible,” Mickelson said. “And she said, ‘Come on, now, cheer up. Let’s go make some birdies.’ And she was so positive, and it just changed my attitude.”
He became a four-time winner at Pebble Beach, where his grandfather used to caddie.
It’s more about the momentum he hopes this will give him going into the rest of the year. Mickelson had not won since the Houston Open last year and had fallen out of the top 10 in the world. He started this season believing his game was about to turn the corner, only to miss the cut at Torrey Pines and finish out of the top 25 in two other tournaments.
“It’s one of the more emotional victories for me than I’ve had, and the reason is I’ve had some doubt these last couple of weeks, given the scores I’ve shot,” Mickelson said. “Having these great practice sessions, I started to wonder if I’m going to be able to bring it to the golf course. So this gives me a lot of confidence and erases the doubt.”
Despite the six-shot deficit, Mickelson drew optimism from recent history — not only his record playing alongside Woods, but the nature of Pebble Beach. He was tied for the 54-hole lead in 2001 when Davis Love erased a seven-shot deficit in seven holes, shot 63 and won.
As for the confidence he gets playing with Woods?
“I just seem more focused,” Mickelson said. “I know that his level of play is so much greater when he’s playing his best that it just forces me to focus on my game more intently, and hit more precise shots.”
That’s what he did.
After picking up birdies on Nos. 2 and 4, Mickelson got a bonus with an 8-iron that plopped down 2 feet from the cup for a tap-in birdie at the par-3 fifth. His approach to the par-5 sixth hopped onto the green and then came another break. He knew the putt broke to the right and had a line picked out.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo — Woods’ partner — went first from a similar line.
“I saw that it broke more right than I thought, so I adjusted by a couple of inches,” Mickelson said. The ball curled in from the right side of the cup, giving Mickelson the outright lead.
Woods had to make a 6-footer for a two-putt birdie — his first — but that didn’t last long. He three-putted the seventh from 18 feet, missed a 5-foot par putt on the eighth badly to the right, failed to save par from the bunker on the ninth.
He headed home with another close call. Two weeks ago in his 2012 debut, Woods was tied for the 54-hole lead with Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi, couldn’t break par and tied for third. He knew he would need a round of 66 at Pebble Beach to have a chance and wound up watching his old nemesis get the job done.
Woods sounds insulted when asked about not winning on tour. He considers the Chevron World Challenge against an 18-man field last December just as significant. Still, he is raising more doubts than answering questions.