Off course

Dan Wetzel

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Across history and hope, amidst the azaleas and whispering pines, chasing the ghosts of Arnie and Jack, here were the two great champions of the day, pushing and pulling each other, their games locked in a duel for the ages, one more magical moment in this tradition unlike any other.

There was Tiger Woods. There was Phil Mickelson. There they were, engaged in a back and forth game of match-me-if-you-can.

Tiger into the creek? Phil into the trees. Tiger into another creek? Phil into some more trees.

Tiger with consecutive bogeys on 11 and 12? Phil equaling the feat on 5 and 6.

Tiger practically maiming himself with a checked swing drive on 13 courtesy of bird shadows? ("Felt like I broke my back, my wrist, my neck, my legs," Woods said.)

Mickelson so deep into the Georgia woods he needed a hunting license and Lyme disease vaccination. ("I tried to get through a gap and it rattled off a couple of (trees)," Mickelson said.)

What a round Friday for these two, who entered the week hearing about how their competitive rivalry – they've won five of the last six Masters and swapped two of the last three – would bring out the best in both of them, culminating in a final pairing Sunday showdown.

Well, anything is possible but with Woods at three over, Mickelson at five over and the leaders at two under, anything isn't probable.

Neither one is officially out of contention, Woods may actually be in fine shape, but the chances of this winding up as another chapter in their budding rivalry is about as good as CBS getting fired up about the ratings potential of "Tim Clark, runaway Masters Champion."

The amazing thing is both are still alive after a steady collection of bad shots, worse decisions and bogeys all over the board.

They both made some sensational shots here, but it's been mostly to make up for prior sorry ones. Woods' downhill, 18-footer on 12 to save bogey was a thing of beauty. His out from the trees, carving approach on 18 was pure genius.

Mickelson's bogey on 11, after marching around in the woods, was improbable. His out of the forest approach on 17 was even better, the stuff of legend.

Just not the stuff you expect legends to have to do.

Put it this way, at one point, on back-to-back holes Woods went into the water. Not to be outdone, at one point on back-to-back shots Mickelson went into the trees.

"I turned basically a 90 into a 74 today," Woods said, looking for the bright side.

"Yesterday I drove it horrible and putted it horrible. Today I just drove it horrible," Mickelson said, trying to be even more optimistic.

See, these guys are locked in a test of one upsmanship.

"I missed the fairways," Mickelson said.

Other than that he was great.

As for Tiger, his goal was simple, "let's not do anymore damage than I have done."

They even both dressed ugly, Tiger in a horrific orange sweater vest, Phil in a puke green long sleeve.

Did Arnie and Jack ever do this?

The fact they still have a chance is the product of a brutal course, a less than frightening top of the leader board – Brett Wetterich? Vaughn Taylor? – and their unique ability to go from horrible to hero in a single swing.

Both have the confidence of knowing that, in the end, they are talented enough to survive just about any disaster. Every time things got bleak, they made a ridiculous save. Mickelson was two makeable closing birdie putts away from actually tying Tiger.

About the only thing they varied on was whether they worried at all about missing the cut.

Woods was five over after 12, nearly ripped his body apart on a bizarre check swing – "I don't know how those baseball players do it," he said. "Felt like the shaft was going to snap" – yet it never dawned on him he was creeping toward the cut line.

Did you ever think he might not make it, he was asked?

Woods just smiled at the question as his eyes shaped into a look of disbelief. Finally he laughed and shook his head slightly. Tiger Woods was not missing the cut here; even if he had broken that back, those wrists, that neck, those legs.

Mickelson was a bit more concerned, which seems reasonable considering on 11 he was six over, two shots deep in the trees and staring at a possible double bogey.

"It looked like I could be packing my bags," he said.

But they both made it. And now they both were talking like former champions, with bravado that might rattle the nameless, faceless folks ahead of them. Yes, there was Phil and Tiger, Tiger and Phil, right there backing each other up again, even on the wrong side of par, even after a wild day of shot missing.

"They're not going anywhere," Woods said of the leaders. "Not under these conditions. They're not going to go low here."

"With the wind blowing the way it should the next two days, you have a chance," Mickelson said.

What a duel. What a day. And just wait until CBS sets it to music.