By Brian Wacker
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, chumming it up like college roommates with a game of golf pong against one another. “Alright, Phil,” Woods says. “That’s eight in 90 seconds. Whatchya got?” Phil responds: “Tiger, eight? Come on,” then proceeds to make nine with a few pellets to spare.
Cheesy, scripted, promotional stunt in advance of their day-after-Thanksgiving match aside, it’s an exchange that would have been impossible to fathom for most of their professional careers.
“It wouldn’t have surprised me coming from Phil. That’s who he is, it’s his personality,” says Davis Love III. “But if you asked me 15 years ago if this would happen, I wouldn’t have thought we’d see it from Tiger. [Players] had a relationship with Phil. We didn’t know Tiger Woods, or who he was. I’m surprised the last four or five years just how much he has opened up.”
“I think it’s just growing up, a maturity,” adds Steve Stricker. “Golf is a humbling sport. I mean, who’d have thought all that’s happened to [Tiger] would have happened? It changes your perspective on things and how you treat people.”
The idea for the made-for-TV match between Woods and Mickelson was of course spawned by Lefty. He is golf’s P.T. Barnum. But even he needed a partner, and Woods’ willingness to buy in to such a show, in essence, was years in the making.
Four years ago, with Woods at home recovering from a second micro-discectomy surgery to remove a disc fragment that was pinching a nerve (and soon to undergo another procedure to relieve discomfort in his back), the U.S. Ryder Cup team got drubbed at Gleneagles for its sixth loss in the last seven biennial matches. At the press conference that Sunday night in Scotland, Mickelson blasted his own captain Tom Watson (and in essence the PGA of America) for the mismanagement of the team. It was a seminal moment that led to sweeping changes and the formation of the Ryder Cup task force, of which Woods, ever the competitor who had also grown tired of all the losing, readily signed on. Golf’s two biggest stars were aligned, and more importantly the lines of communication, be it the Ryder Cup or other topics, were open.
“I think that had a lot to do with [them becoming closer] because they were forced into the same room,” said Love, who captained the U.S. in a 2012 loss at Medinah before returning in 2016 and a victory at Hazeltine. “It’s hard when you’re both trying to be No. 1. They were on the path to [becoming more friendly] in 2004. That’s why Hal Sutton threw them together. But [how that went] that threw a wrench in things.”
The ill-fated pairing of the top two players in the world at the time was hardly the only wrench.
‘Phil was such a rival of Tiger’s. It wouldn’t have been natural back then [for them to be friends]. He was different than the guys today, the Jordan Spieths and Justin Thomas, who are chummy with each other.’ —Hank Haney
Early on, the competitiveness that comes with youth got in the way. Both were products of Southern California and superstars from an early age, with Mickelson five years older than Woods and the player that Tiger often measured himself against. Mickelson’s enormous success, which included a slew of amateur and collegiate titles as well winning a PGA Tour as a 20-year-old amateur, was an easy target to shoot for.
Once Woods got his chance, of course, he was even better, winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs (still the only player to do so) and three straight U.S. Amateurs (also still the only player to do so). By the time Woods turned pro, Mickelson had already won nine times on the PGA Tour but no majors. In Woods’ first major as a professional he captured the 1997 Masters with a record-setting performance. And in 2000, Woods passed Mickelson in career victories on tour, racking up eight wins that season, including three of the year’s four majors, to reach 24 in all—a total that would take Mickelson 13 years to achieve. Mickelson has been in the rear-view mirror ever since.
Though there was always a mutual respect for one another’s abilities, there were varying levels of friction between Woods and Mickelson along the way as well. In a 2003 magazine interview, Mickelson made a crack about Woods using “inferior” equipment. The following year at the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, the two players’ games went together about as well as gasoline and a match, with Mickelson deciding the event would be a good time to break in a new driver, fairway woods and golf ball, and Woods rolling his eyes in disgust at one point after Mickelson had hit one OB during their four-ball match.
In 2007, Mickelson also began working with Butch Harmon, who had been Woods’ instructor in the early years of his career and who clued the left-hander in on some of his former pupil’s competitive psychological moves. Other moments included an off-color joke about Mickelson that Woods had gotten caught telling, according to one source; the occasional crack from Woods about Mickelson’s physique and workout routine, according to Woods’ former swing coach Hank Haney; and, in 2008, a disparaging remark from Woods’ then caddie, Steve Williams, about Mickelson.
As the off-the-course issues flared-up, there were a handful of head-to-head showdowns on the course that also impacted their relationship. They were too few and far between for many fans but they were almost always memorable. Perhaps none more so than their 2005 duel at Doral, where Mickelson had just come off his best season and first major title. Mickelson had a two-shot lead going into the final round, but Woods smoked the field with a closing 66 to Mickelson’s 69 and won by a stroke.
“Phil was such a rival of Tiger’s,” Haney said. “It wouldn’t have been natural back then [for them to be friends]. He was different than the guys today, the Jordan Spieths and Justin Thomas, who are chummy with each other.”
Even so, there have been endearing moments between the two stars through the years.
When Mickelson’s wife Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2009, Woods reached out to Mickelson. Six years later, while Woods was struggling with his back and suffering a nasty case of the chip yips, Mickelson sent encouraging texts.
“He offered numerous times to help me out with technique and just about it,” Woods said earlier this year. “I said, ‘Yeah, you and I have the same philosophy in how we approach chipping and how we do it. I just can’t physically do it.’ But now it’s different. I feel better. And my short game has turned around.”
So has their relationship.
When Mickelson was on his way to winning in Mexico earlier this year, Woods texted words of encouragement throughout the week. Afterward, he offered a sincere congratulations. When Woods was in contention at the Valspar Championship, Mickelson did the same. Then there was a practice round at the Masters, their first together.
“I’ve always had that appreciation and respect for him,” Mickelson said later. “I found myself pulling so hard for him [at Valspar]. It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well.”
Time, and age, has softened the relationship between Woods, who turns 43 next month, and the 48-year-old Mickelson. It’s not all that dissimilar to the one that Jack Nicklaus had with the late Arnold Palmer, those around Woods and Mickelson say. There are other factors as well.
“Phil isn’t Tiger’s No. 1 rival now,” Haney said. “You only have a rival when you’re the guy sitting on top of the mountain.”
After being found asleep at the wheel of his car near his South Florida home and arrested on suspicion of DUI on Memorial Day weekend 2017, Woods, who had missed most of the previous three years because of injuries and surgeries, checked into a rehab facility to help manage his pain and sleep medication.
“It’s fairly obvious Tiger’s a different person since his last rehab stint,” said Haney, who for 25 years was an alcoholic. “In rehab you don’t just sit there locked in a room where you can’t take pills. You actually talk to people. When you get underneath the hood, something’s changed. I know a lot about that stuff and I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Mickelson reached out to Woods then, too, and throughout this season there have been countless stories of how approachable and accommodating Woods has been, from fellow players to fans. He has even been occasionally more open with the media.
“I think he’s more at peace with his role in golf,” Brandt Snedeker, who had been paired with Woods a number of times this year, said earlier this season. “There was a time when he was so focused on winning he lost out on some of the relationships that go on out here. He’s embraced that the last five years, kind of opened up to a mentor role to the younger guys.”
Added player-turned-broadcaster Paul Azinger: “Tiger is living life. Sometimes you need to ask yourself if you’re in a good place. Tiger wasn’t, but he seems to be in a much better place now.”
Once congenial at best and often times icy, the dynamic between the two biggest names in the sport is, too. Which brings us to their latest head to head and just how far the two have come.
After all, how much fun can you have playing golf pong by yourself?