The burgeoning friendship between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods was evident when the two played a rare practice round at the Masters last month, and on Tuesday Mickelson said the golf his longtime rival played during his prime was the best the game has ever seen.
Mickelson and Woods will be paired together along with Rickie Fowler for the first two rounds of The Players Championship beginning Thursday. It will be just the second time that Mickelson, 47, and Woods, 42, have played a competitive round together at TPC-Sawgrass.
The first was during the third round in 2001, when Woods drained a 60-foot birdie putt on the famous par-3 17th hole. It was the highlight of a 6-under par round of 66, and Woods went on to win the title the following day. Two weeks later he would complete the “Tiger Slam” by winning the Masters for his fourth consecutive major title.
Mickelson believes no one will eclipse the golf Woods played in compiling 14 major titles, the most recent coming at the U.S. Open 10 years ago.
“I don’t think anybody today who wasn’t there to witness it, and I don’t think anybody before, will ever see that level of play again,” Mickelson said. “It was the most remarkable golf in the history of the game, and I think unrepeatable. I think it was that good.
“I look at 2000 as being kind of the benchmark at the U.S. Open and being the greatest golf I’ve ever witnessed and I believe has ever been played.”
Mickelson is a five-time major winner, but didn’t collect his first until the 2004 Masters. He added two more green jackets in ’06 and 2010 to go with a PGA Championship title in 2005 and a British Open victory in 2013. The one that has eluded him is the U.S. Open, where he is a six-time runner-up.
One of those came to Woods in 2002, and Woods had eight majors under his belt before Mickelson earned his first.
“It sucked to have to play against him. It really did,” Mickelson admitted Tuesday. “You look at it and say, ‘How am going to going to beat this?’ There was a stretch there for a numbers of years that it was so impressive that it was hard to imagine that it was actually happening, that he was hitting some of the shots that he was hitting and playing that well.
“The guys today look back and they say, ‘Come on, how much better could he have been?’ and so forth. And it goes to show you that they weren’t there to witness it.”
The notoriously frosty relationship between the two legends has cooled dramatically in recent years, with Woods saying at the Masters that Mickelson was a great friend as he recovered from fusion surgery last year – his fourth back procedure. Woods hasn’t won since 2013, and Mickelson had some fun with the level of interest their grouping is drawing this week – the first time they have played in the first two rounds together since the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I love that we’re paired together, I think it’s really fun,” Mickelson said. “As I look at the cover of the newspaper and the pairing is on there, and the excitement that has been going on here, it gets me thinking, why don’t we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head-to-head and just have kind of a high stakes winner-take-all match?
“Now, I don’t know if he wants a piece of me, but I just think that it would be something that would be really fun for us to do and I think there would be a lot of interest in it if we just went straight to the final round.”
–By Derek Harper, Field Level Media