Together. As partners. On purpose.
“I never thought I would see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta,” Rory McIlroy said with a laugh.
They were once rivals, although how far that extended from professional to personal has always been open to debate. Both golfers always downplayed it. That said, they hadn’t paired up like this for a practice round of a regular tournament since the 1998 Nissan Open in Los Angeles (Phil won $100 that day, took a photocopy of the bill and placed it in Tiger’s locker).
Maybe they weren’t really mortal enemies (this is golf, not the UFC) but if they were actually friends, they sure hid it well.
They bumped into each other on Monday and realizing both of their schedules were free for nine holes on Tuesday and, well, this might be cool. They took Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters along with them. Phil and Tiger teamed up this time for a money game and, mostly on the strength of Woods eagling both 13 and 15, won the match and some undisclosed amount of cash from Couples and Pieters.
“It was an appearance fee,” Woods joked. “We enjoyed it.”
To see this, Phil and Tiger working together, laughing together, comparing shots caused heads to spin. At one point, near the 15th green, Phil was demonstrating his famed flop shot for Tiger to study.
“He hits that thing, and I don’t know how he doesn’t hit himself,” Tiger said. “It’s incredible.”
In the past, there was no way they’d be showing each other tricks or trying to build up the other’s confidence before a Masters, where each one was the other’s chief competition.
It was understandable the two weren’t always close. They were both chasing the same thing — major championships, world rankings and glory. Every little thing was a competition. Who worked out harder (Tiger). Who could hit it farther (Tiger). Who could chip better (Phil). Phil once made fun of Tiger having to play with inferior club technology.
“That was then,” Tiger said. “And, certainly, this is now.”
Phil arrived for the practice round sporting a button-down dress shirt that was a fashion risk. Tiger quickly pounced and made fun of it.
“The only thing that was missing was a tie,” Tiger said.
“I have a tie,” Phil laughed.
Everyone was in a good mood on Tuesday.
“Looking great isn’t for everyone,” Phil said. “But let’s not hate on those that do.”
This is golf’s new buddy movie. A “budding bromance” as it was put to Phil.
“I don’t know if I would phrase it the way you did,” he laughed. “But I don’t want to hold you back.”
It’s the product of a few things, age being the most prominent. They are both veterans now, trying to keep up with a slew of young guns who are driving the competitive level of the PGA Tour. Three of the top five players in the world rankings — Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth — are under 25.
“We’re at the tail end of our careers,” Tiger said. “We both know that. He’s 47. I’m 42. We have had a great 20-year battle, hopefully we’ll have a few more, but we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1.”
Neither likes to play more than nine holes of practice so they can stay fresh for the actual tournament. So that makes them a match. They also have been pushed into familiarity, if not friendship, all these years. On Ryder and Presidential Cup teams, they found common purpose and common ground. When injured of late, Tiger served as an assistant captain, which focused him on pushing his teammates, including Mickelson.
“Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” Tiger said.
Phil said he always respected Tiger for being the champion he is. He also appreciated the revenue that Woods brought into the game, noting no one benefitted more from increased prize money and sponsorship deals. Tiger has had the better career — 14 majors to Phil’s five. Couples noted that Mickelson might have 10 or 12 if not for Woods.
If that once bothered Phil, he spins it around these days.
“It’s very possible that’s the case and it’s also possible that he brought out the best in me and forced me to work harder and focus to ultimately achieve the success that I’ve had.”
Mostly though, there is an agreement that the recent past makes the present so precious. If not now for fun mornings at Augusta National, then it may be never. Tiger has skipped three of the past four Masters due to injuries, which reaffirmed how something like this isn’t guaranteed.
They can’t just wait until they are in their 50s or 60s to play Augusta and reminisce about the good old days.
“We have competed a lot of times coming down the stretch in events,” Tiger said. “We were joking today about some of the thoughts that transpired here. We have gone through it a long time.”
The gallery that surrounded them and trailed them and whopped up every great shot was something out of a Sunday afternoon. It was huge. It was rowdy. It couldn’t believe its unexpected fortune.
Tiger and Phil? Yes, Tiger and Phil.
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