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Another chapter in Tiger-Phil saga?

There really was no way to describe this rivalry anyway. Can it truly be a rivalry if only one side thinks it is?

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are not like Arnie and Jack because Arnie had been the undisputed king before Jack came along. They are not like Magic and Bird or Kobe and LeBron because Phil and Tiger just aren't on the same plateau.

>> See photos of Tiger Woods practicing at Bethpage Black, and his recent tournaments

>> See photos of Phil Mickelson's recent visit to Bethpage Black

If anything, Tiger and Phil are like the old Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, with one side always chasing the other and hoping to catch lightning.

In any case, the one thing to be said for sure about the rivalry heading into the U.S. Open this week at Bethpage State Park's Black Course is that it doesn't matter so much right now.

>> See photos of the course Bethpage Black

Real life has stepped in front of golf again, just as it had the last time the Open came to the New York area in 2006, at Winged Foot. Back then, Woods missed the cut because he wasn't quite prepared after having taken time off because of the death of his father.

This time, it is Mickelson's real life. And the Open is not so much a matter of him playing to catch Woods, but the fact he is playing, period. This major championship -- the one that always has seemed in his grasp and just out of his reach -- was far from his mind last month, when it was announced that his wife, Amy, required major surgery for breast cancer.

But her prognosis improved so much that he returned to golf last week, in time to return this week to the site of one of his four second-place Open finishes. As far as sentiment goes, he is not likely to be second to anyone this time.

"No doubt, Phil is the story of this Open," said Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion who is now basically the voice of golf as NBC's analyst. "This could be one of the great Opens of all time."

Not to overlook Woods, the defending champion of the U.S. Open, having won last year on one leg in a withering playoff, and of Bethpage, where he beat Mickelson by three shots in 2002.

Eyes will be on Woods, the world's top-ranked player, as he continues to test his surgically repaired left knee and keeps chasing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships (Woods has 14).

Hearts will be with Mickelson, No. 2 in the world. Thousands of e-mails, letters and cards poured in for Amy, one of the most well-liked people in the golf industry.

"There's a story there that is better than anything Hollywood could come up with,'' said Miller, who called Woods' plotline an 8 or 9 on a dramatic scale of 1 to 10. "Phil is a full 10."

It all reflects how much these two sons of Southern California public courses have grown since their days on the youth circuit. They are husbands, fathers, entrepreneurs, superstars.

They often are mentioned in the same breath, although Mickelson's record isn't nearly as gaudy as that of Woods.

Woods gives the impression he doesn't stay up nights thinking about Mickelson. When someone asked him at the Masters about the rivalry, Woods shot it down, saying that he probably had had a more spirited running duel with Ernie Els. After Woods and Mickelson were paired in a galvanizing twosome on the final day in Augusta, Woods downplayed the whole thing, saying only that "Phil played well."

On the air recently, CBS broadcaster David Feherty spoke of the relationship between the two. "They don't have one," said the announcer whom Woods describes as "a friend for a very long time."

Mickelson, on the other hand, relishes the challenge. He seemed enthralled by Sunday at Augusta, when the two of them charged up the leader board.

"That was great fun," Mickelson's friend and short game coach Dave Pelz said. "It was disappointing on the back nine, but he has been playing well this year. You know, he has beaten Tiger the last few times they've played together."

Kenny Perry, the leader playing in the final group at the Masters, joked afterward he hoped the two would get into a boxing match, indicating how other golfers sense the electricity.

"Obviously they're the best at what we do," said Sean O'Hair, who has lost a tournament down the stretch to each. "Obviously they're very different in how they play golf and in their personalities, but they're similar in the way that they know what works best for them, and that's what makes them great."

In retrospect, the most stirring sight at Augusta that Sunday was Amy, walking the course, buoyantly staying ahead of the massive crowd and talking about how excited Phil is to be going back to Bethpage -- a return that is a big story this week.

New York Sports