By Derek Harper, Field Level Media
For the better part of two decades, it would have been nearly unfathomable to think of Phil Mickelson approaching Tiger Woods about playing a practice round at the local muni, much less at the Masters.
The two had a famously frosty relationship as Tiger was racking up 14 majors, many of them at the expense of Mickelson, the lovable second fiddle to Woods’ historical dominance for so many years.
But there was Mickelson on Monday, asking Tiger’s caddie Joe LaCava if he would be interested in a practice round shortly after arriving at Augusta National. They agreed to pair up on Tuesday, playing a nine-hole game against 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples and Belgium’s long-hitting Thomas Pieters.
It speaks volumes about the mind set of the 47-year-old Mickelson and the 42-year-old Woods at this stage of their careers. Tiger has four green jackets, the most recent coming 13 years ago, sandwiched by the first two of Mickelson’s three triumphs at Augusta. Now Woods is playing in his first Masters since 2015, and less than a year since undergoing fusion surgery on his back.
“I think Phil and I, we’ve been through it for so long,” Woods said at his Tuesday press conference when asked about his relationship with Mickelson. “We’ve been together on these (Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup) teams long enough, and then when I got hurt and had to take a different role on these teams… Phil was great, he tried to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback.”
Woods is preparing for his first major tournament since the 2015 PGA Championship. Of the eight played since, four have been won by players in their 20s. Mickelson’s most recent major win came at the 2013 British Open, which was his last victory anywhere until winning the WGC-Mexico Championship last month.
“Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” Woods said. “We’ve gone through it a long time, the better part of 20 years. Our friendship has certainly gotten a lot stronger.
“I think part of it is age. We’re at the tail end (of our careers), we understand that. We understand where we’re at in the game now compared to when we were in our 20s. That was then, this is now.”
Although Woods has finished in the top five in each of his past three tournaments, he has only five total tournaments under his belt in this latest comeback. He has played exactly four weekend rounds in majors over the past four years and his last top 10 in a major came five years ago at the U.S. Open. So while the excitement around his return to August is understandable, Woods is tapping the breaks a bit on the expectations.
“I have four rounds to play, so let’s just kind of slow down,” he said with a smile. “I’ve had anticipation like this prior (returning from injury). It’s the same thing. I have to go play, and then let the chips fall where they may. I have a lot of work to do between now and (Sunday).”
It’s abundantly clear that Woods is relishing his return to competitive form. He is flashy easy smiles all around Augusta National and interacting with the crowd and his fellow players. ESPN golf writer Bob Harig said he could not remember Woods and Mickelson playing a practice round together since 1998, one in which Mickelson has brought up a few times in boasting that he won $500 from Tiger.
“They’re different people on the golf course (now),” Couples said after Tuesday’s practice round. “If Tiger would have kept winning majors, maybe they might not have played today. But it’s a little different scenario. I think there’s fun times for them ahead. I think they had a good time today. They’ve never really disliked each other, and they probably aren’t best of friends, but they’re friends.
“You take away Tiger Woods, and Phil probably has 10 or 12 majors, but you can’t. Tiger’s got all the majors – most of them, and now they’re coming together just for a few years. They may be paired together on Sunday. They’re playing extremely well, and they love the course and they’re going to do very, very well.”
Woods and Mickelson are among the handful of pre-tournament betting favorites, along with a slew of 20-something players taking over the PGA Tour along with top-ranked Dustin Johnson and reigning Masters champion Sergio Garcia, both in their 30s.
“I don’t think there’s one clear-cut favorite,” Woods said. “I think that’s what makes this year’s Masters so exciting. There are so many guys playing well. From the guys in their 20s to Phil at 47. It’s going to be fun. Not just from the spectators but for the players as well.”