Mark Herrmann Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since 2002. A former Mets beat reporter, he has covered baseball's special events, including the World Series and the All-Star Game Show More

AUGUSTA, Ga.

Something has just been missing in Phil Mickelson's game this year. Something that has kept him from winning tournaments and being the elite player he ought to be. And the only logical conclusion is that "something" is 6-1, 185 pounds and has four green jackets.

Mickelson never did "step up" in Tiger Woods' absence, as golf observers expected him to do. He didn't fill golf's celebrity void while Woods was on his leave, trying to piece together his life. The best explanation is that Mickelson needs Woods as much as the rest of the golf world does. Mickelson wouldn't be Mickelson, that earnest striver, if there wasn't someone he was earnestly striving to beat.

Believe if you like that Mickelson's major victory total would be in double digits by now if Woods hadn't been around. This peanut stand prefers to think of Mickelson without Woods as Captain Ahab without the great white whale. Woods has challenged Mickelson, driven him, inspired him to work out and work harder.

At the absolute least, Mickelson wouldn't be nearly as rich had it not been for Woods. That argument comes from the best possible source, Mickelson's own mouth.

One day after Woods' expansive and convincingly contrite pre-Masters news conference, Mickelson had his own regularly scheduled time at the dais Tuesday. He was asked what he thought of Woods' apology to his fellow golfers for having left them to answer all kinds of questions about his absence and his sordid behavior.

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"Well, he doesn't owe me an apology," Mickelson said. "I mean, in the last 12 years, he's done so much for the game of golf. I don't know if there has been an individual who has capitalized more on the opportunities that he has brought to the game of golf than myself.

"He doesn't owe me a thing," Woods' greatest rival said.

Mickelson's eyes lit up when he reflected on his Sunday at the Masters last year, when they went head to head and electrified Augusta National with their charge up the leader board. Mickelson outplayed Woods and out-enjoyed him, although neither won. The lefthander remembered how the two had had lunch together before their round that day.

"We made a few jokes and laughed and giggled a little bit and I knew it was going to be a fun day," Mickelson said.

Much of the year since then has been anything but fun for both rivals. They have had a rough go, for vastly different reasons. Woods' world collapsed under the scandal caused by his reported numerous affairs. Mickelson's world grew scary when his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, were diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Mickelson said Tuesday that Amy - such a buoyant figure here last year, excitedly moving from hole to hole to watch the Tiger-Phil show - has a good prognosis and might be here this week.

"But day to day has been difficult," he said, "and the medicines and so forth have been challenging and have made the quality of life not what we . . . hopefully, we are trying to work on it and make it better."

He does what he can. He relies on the likes of Dr. Tom Buchholz, the Houston-based specialist who "has been a huge part of helping us get through" and who caddied a few holes for Mickelson at the Shell Houston Open on Sunday. Mickelson thrives on the support of the fans that he always acknowledges. Oddly, Tiger, in his comeback, is trying to be more like Phil, striving to connect with galleries.

It's "crazy," Mickelson said, to suggest that Woods can't win this Masters, layoff or not.

Woods is better than Mickelson. But Mickelson is better than Mickelson would have been if Woods hadn't been around. So it would be just as crazy to think Mickelson can't win.