AUGUSTA, Ga. – They were asking the defending champion about the green jacket ceremony, about what it felt like, but they weren't talking about last year, when Phil Mickelson slipped it on.
No, they were asking Mickelson about Tiger Woods, not just 10 years ago when he annihilated the competition and changed this sport forever. But two years ago, when Woods held Mickelson off again, won again, made Mickelson serve as the role of wardrobe assist.
Phil Mickelson finally won a major (three of them actually), finally won at Augusta National (two of the last three actually), but once again all anyone wanted to talk about, it seemed, was Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. So they asked him about the pregnancy of Tiger’s wife, the death of Tiger’s dad and the legacy of Tiger himself.
What did it feel like two years ago to help him put on the jacket, Mickelson was asked.
“I don’t know,” Mickelson smiled. “But I remember what it felt like last year when he put it on me.”
Mickelson won the Masters in 2004 and 2006. Woods won it in 2005, not to mention 1997, 2000 and 2001. So some are arguing that Mickelson and Woods are starting a great back-and-forth timeshare of green garments, a rivalry of equals.
But not really. And Mickelson realizes it. He still isn’t Woods and still won’t be considered as such – even here at Phil-favorable Augusta – until he beats him again, until he stares down an on-top-of-his-game-Tiger on Sunday’s back nine and straight up wins. Until he does that, he is always going to have to remind people of his accomplishments.
Last year Woods may have finished third to Phil’s first, may have been forced to help the green jacket onto Mickelson’s shoulders, but Woods was dealing with the severe illness and pending death of his father. He pressed too much. He concentrated too little. Fair or not, that’s the asterisk many fans now put on Mickelson’s victory.
“Last year was a lot more difficult than I was letting on because I knew that it was the last tournament (my dad) 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.
“I made a few mistakes out there that cost me the tournament and plus Phil played brilliantly on Sunday and was really tough to catch. But I had some opportunities to make putts on the back nine and I didn't get it done.”
They don’t trash talk in golf, but there are tea leaves to be read. And as mostly conciliatory and complimentary as Mickelson and Woods were following a practice round Tuesday, a slight simmer of annoyance was there on both sides.
Woods probably isn’t all that big on having a “peer.” Mickelson would probably like a little more attention on him, the defending champion and all.
But there is little question that Mickelson’s best days – a run from the 2005 PGA Championship to the 2006 US Open, when only a late meltdown cost him a third consecutive major – came while Woods was reeling with his father’s health.
Whether that is Mickelson’s fault or not doesn’t matter. Mickelson's changed legacy came crashing down on the final holes of last June’s US Open when he blew the championship and then called himself “an idiot.” He went from New Phil to Same Old Phil.
Then Woods, properly mourned and fully focused, took measure of the growing clamor that Mickelson had perhaps equaled him as the game's best player and promptly went out and dominated the last two majors of the year. The pecking order was reestablished.
Which brings us back to Augusta, where Mickelson’s victory last year should have answered a lot of questions. Instead all the old ones seem to have returned. He’s still the other guy in the Tiger-Phil competition.
For his part, Mickelson has seemed to accept his position here. In terms of career victories or major championships he knows he’ll never catch Woods.
“If I have a great rest of my career, and I go out and win 20 more tournaments and seven more majors to get to 50 wins and ten majors, which would be an awesome career, I still won't get to where he's at today,” Mickelson said. “So I don't try to compare myself against him.”
So essentially, this is what he has to work with. He needs to take his share of battles against Woods and he needs to do it in the majors when the casual fan is watching. Mickelson told ESPN the Magazine that he wants what the fans want, he and Tiger going shot-for-shot on Sunday. He wants that pressure, that drama, that validation. He knows there is no other way.
“I think it's a fun challenge to beat him,” Mickelson said. “He's most likely the best player the game has ever seen.”
Woods, of course, didn’t look too concerned. He’s chasing history for the most part, chasing Jack Nicklaus. But if in the process he has to beat back another challenger to his current throne, then so be it. Motivation is motivation.
Mostly, he’d like to leave this switching of the jackets the past three years as a historic aberration. That starts Thursday. And there are no family distractions this time.
“Heading into this year,” Woods said, “[I have] a totally different mind-set.”
Heading into this year, Mickelson has to beat Tiger again. It turns out two of the last three here weren't enough. And fair or not, true or not, he knows it.