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Woods & Mickelson top draw for Skins Game

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson don't play practice rounds together. They never have played with or against each other in exhibitions like the World Cup or the Battle at Bighorn. If they have lunch together, it's usually by accident.

The world's two best golfers will be together all weekend at the Skins Game, the most popular silly season event that suddenly doesn't seem all that silly.

"I think there will be a little more added interest ... because certainly when we play against each other, there is an added intensity on both parts," Mickelson said.

That's the problem - it doesn't happen all that much.

They played together in only one tournament all year, the season-ending Tour Championship. Before that it was the final round of the 2001 Masters, where Woods prevailed for an unprecedented fourth straight major title.

Mickelson is 2-up this year, a hollow victory.

He shot an even-par 70 to Woods' 71 in the opening round of the Tour Championship, then closed with a 69 (Woods had a 70) at East Lake Golf Club. Both finished well behind Vijay Singh, and they could make the argument they were not competing against each other.

This time they are.

Woods and Mickelson will join Fred Couples and Mark O'Meara as the Skins Game returns to its regular format. Whoever has the best score wins the hole. If there is a tie, the skins carry over until someone wins a hole outright.

The first six holes are worth $25,000 each, the next six holes are worth $50,000, the next five holes are worth $70,000, and the 18th hole is worth $200,000.

A year ago, no one could win a skin unless he validated it by having at least a share of the best score on the next hole. The experiment failed when no one won a skin until Greg Norman prevailed in a playoff and claimed all 18 skins and the $1 million pot.

"This is a format that provides a lot of instant pressure," Mickelson said. "As the skins' value goes up, the pressure seems to mount on the players, and the importance of each putt seems to get bigger rather quickly."

While having the top two players at Landmark Golf Club for the ConAgra Foods Skins Game is certain to pique the interest, it doesn't guarantee great golf.

"When we have played together, for whatever reason, we have not played our best golf," Mickelson said, an opinion validated by Woods' father.

During an interview two years ago, Earl Woods pointed out several player who seemed to bring out the best in his son. Lefty was not on that list.

"I don't know why that is," Earl Woods said. "There's no rational explanation."

Even more peculiar is their relationship.

Mickelson has gone on a campaign in recent months to dispel rumors that he and Woods don't get along.

"Somebody came up with a story, and it just kept going," Lefty said. "We get along great. I don't know what else to say. I enjoy being around him."

Mickelson says they simply lead different lifestyles. He's married with two children. Woods is single, with a Swedish model for a girlfriend.

"The difficulty in having a relationship with Tiger is that he is so limited in what he can do," Mickelson said. "He's not really able to go out to dinner or sporting events or do things on the road. He needs to stay private. It's very difficult being him.

"I give him a lot of credit for the way he handles things, because I don't know if I'd be able to do that. He handles a very difficult situation very well."

Strangely enough, Mickelson never has played in the Skins Game, even though the format seems to suit his style.

Why this year?

Part of it is his schedule. Mickelson's wife is expecting their third child at the end of March, and he plans to get in his golf while he can. Mickelson also is playing in the Target World Challenge next week, then the World Cup in Mexico with David Toms.

"I think it would be a cool tournament to play in," Mickelson said.

Known for being the best player without a major title, Mickelson is just as famous for his aggressive, gambling style.

"I don't think there's any question that aggressive play is going to be the style of choice," Mickelson said. "You have to make birdies to win skins. It doesn't behoove you to play steadily. I think that this will be a format you not only see me playing aggressively, but everybody else, too."

Woods was plenty aggressive earlier this week, shooting rounds of 66-61 to win the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Hawaii by 14 strokes.

The Skins Game has been another story.

Woods won only two skins in his debut at age 20 in 1996, and he claimed three skins the next year. He didn't return until 2001, and he was shut out under the validation system. Even under a regular format, Woods would have won only one skin.

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