Phil Mickelson & Tiger Woods the main attraction
Daybreak at Augusta National brought together the two most prominent figures at the Masters, the first showdown of the week between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
OK, so it was only Tuesday. And it lasted only a split second.
Woods showed up on the first tee and looked back toward the putting green in Mickelson's direction.
"Let's go," he said.
He was talking, of course, to Mark O'Meara, who picked up his golf balls and joined his buddy for a practice round.
It is easy to exaggerate the rivalry of Woods and Mickelson, especially at the Masters. Snapshots on late Sunday afternoon the last few years have been Mickelson slipping the green jacket on Woods, or vice versa. And while there are 97 players in this year's tournament, at times it seems as though there are only two.
Woods won in 2001 -- oddly enough, the only time he has played with Mickelson in the final group at the Masters -- and in 2002. Mickelson won his first major at the Masters in 2004. Woods answered with a playoff victory in 2005, Mickelson won in a walk in 2006.
It is reminiscent of the early 1960s, when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus traded green jackets.
"I hope not," Mickelson said, "because that would mean what I don't want it to mean this week."
Woods is favored to continue the cycle this week based on recent history outside of the Masters. He already has won twice this year, in the Buick Invitational and the CA Championship at Doral, and he is going for his third straight major championship.
The days leading up to the opening round Thursday are mostly about memories, not only of his 12-shot victory 10 years ago when Woods became the youngest Masters champion, but all the putts he missed last year in a desperate attempt to win one for his ailing father, who died three weeks after the tournament.
"Last year was a lot more difficult than I was letting on, because I knew that was the last tournament he was ever going to watch me play," Woods said. "I just wanted to win one for his last time, and didn't get it done, and it hurt quite a bit."
Happier memories come from 10 years ago, when he walked into his father's arms after a watershed moment in golf. Woods obliterated the course and his competition, finishing at 18-under 270, a score that probably won't be touched for a long time considering how much Augusta National has been super-sized since then (from 6,925 yards to 7,445 yards).
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus saw it coming after a practice round with Woods the year before, Woods' last as an amateur.
"We both marveled at the way he was playing, and how good we thought he was," Palmer said. "Let's just be up front about it. He hasn't disappointed us. If he puts his whole life into the future of his game like he has to this point, there's no telling what he might do."
Mickelson, however, presents a serious obstacle to Woods at Augusta National, if he is not already an equal.
Woods is 2-up in green jackets, but Mickelson has a more consistent record over the last 10 years. Lefty hasn't finished out of the top 10 at the Masters since 1998, while Woods has had three years since that year when he never seriously contended.
Proof for Mickelson came in 2003, his worst season on the PGA Tour. He still only finished two shots behind.
"It's certainly a course that I feel comfortable on and have played well here, whether I've played well going in or not," Mickelson said. "I remember in '03, I was playing terrible and was able to finish third. And when I've entered it playing well, like last year, I've been able to win. It's a course I feel very good on.
"But so does Tiger," he quickly added. "He plays this course very well. He's very tough to beat out here."
It's hard to take inventory of Mickelson's game at this point. He was unstoppable at Pebble Beach, where he missed only one fairway in the final round. He was leading at Riviera until a bogey on the 18th hole, which led to a playoff loss to Charles Howell III.
Mickelson played a practice round two weeks ago and, despite missing putts inside 15 feet on the last three holes, shot 65. He ate lunch, played nine holes in the afternoon and shot 31. But at Doral and Bay Hill, his scoring suffered.
Woods has not been unbeatable in recent weeks. Sure, he won for the third straight year at Torrey Pines (his seventh straight PGA Tour victory) and for the third straight year at Doral, but his putting cost him at Dubai, Bay Hill and Match Play.
His biggest concern at Augusta National, naturally, is with the flat stick.
"I just have to get the speed of these a little bit better," he said. "They have changed every day. Come Thursday, they are always a little bit different. They just turn the vacuums on these greens and suck all the moisture."
As much as Woods and Mickelson have dominated the Masters this decade (for trivia buffs, it was Mike Weir who interrupted their reign by winning in 2003), they rarely go head-to-head. The only occasion was in 2001, when Woods won by two.
Of the U.S. majors, the Masters has the most players who have won at least three times -- Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret.
"Once you figure it out, you see the same guys up there at the top of the board," Woods said. "Phil has been up there many a times, and once he won a few years ago, all of a sudden it gave him the confidence to do it again last year."
April 4, 2007