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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – A steady drizzle pelted every exposed surface and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson huddled under umbrellas just before lunch on Sunday at Sherwood Country Club. There were no fans ringing the 10th tee, there was no buzz awaiting the game’s most recognizable and polarizing stars, there was no chance for victory or valor.
It was a starkly unceremonious end for the two legends who were grouped together in a PGA Tour event for the 38th time. Sixteen strokes off the lead to start the final round of the Zozo Championship, this was a formality. It also was likely the anti-climactic end to a largely anti-climactic head-to-head history between the two titans.
They’ll find themselves in a manufactured group for Rounds 1 and 2 at an event starved for attention somewhere down the road, but the chances of the duo landing together in a meaningful weekend tee time is about as likely as the two sharing a plane ride home.
Mickelson, who turned 50 in June, has a burgeoning bromance with the PGA Tour Champions after starting his career on that circuit with back-to-back victories. He’s even flirting with the idea of forgoing his traditional pre-Masters start at the Houston Open for a tournament on the over-50 circuit. Lefty is also more than a year and a half removed from his last Tour victory and based on his play the last few months, the kinder confines of the senior tour is becoming more attractive with each missed fairway.
Life on the PGA Tour Champions was actually part of Sunday’s conversation.
“We were talking about the Champions Tour a little bit. I said, ‘Hey, man, I'm still five-plus years away,’” Woods said with a laugh.
The alpha half of the super duo may not have much interest in the senior circuit just yet, but in December he turns 45 and if his poor play this season is any indication those magical weeks, like last fall in Japan when he won the Zozo Championship for Tour title No. 82, are becoming far less predictable.
Both have made a career out of making the impossible look probable but in sports, time remains unbeaten. Besides, it’s not as though Tiger and Lefty spent regular Sundays crashing into each other. Over a pair of divergent careers that covered 2 ½ decades this was just their 10th Sunday pairing and only a handful of those head-to-head duels were meaningful.
The 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was the last time they were paired on a Sunday and that tilt went to Lefty, who closed with a 64 to win the event while Tiger limped to a 75 and a tie for 15th. The two went head-to-head during the final round at the ’07 Deutsche Bank Championship (won by Mickelson), in ’06 at Doral and ’03 at the Buick Invitational (both won by Woods).
But just once did they duel for a major, at the ’01 Masters when Tiger closed with a 68 to win, Phil with a 70 to finish third. Others will recall their Sunday duel at the ’09 Masters with Tiger and Phil carding 68 and 67, respectively, which was entertaining but neither had a realistic chance to win.
Regarded as one of the game’s best rivalries the fickle truth is, golf doesn’t have much room for mano a mano even between two of the game’s most consistent players, which makes Sunday’s dreary setting somehow apropos. On a course devoid of fans and starting on the back nine, the two set out with one-time Tour winner Adam Long, who soundly beat the icons.
“If you’re going to be one of the last couple groups off No. 10 you might as well have a pairing like that,” Long said with a smile. “It was fun and exciting for me. A couple of heroes of mine. Without those two I wouldn’t be out here. They inspired me growing up. I’ve been watching them my entire life. They’re my idols, my heroes.”
That reverence only went so far on Sunday for Long, who admitted that he leaned toward the Tiger side of the Woods-or-Mickelson ledger growing up. Long closed with a 3-under 69. Tiger (74) and Phil (78) were a combined 8 over par for the day.
In their prime, the relationship between Woods and Mickelson was best described as cool with shades of indifference and for decades their interactions were limited to the occasional head nod. But on Sunday at shrouded Sherwood the conversation was easy and covered a range of subjects.
“We touched on here and there about our prep, what is it going to be like, is it going to be like when [Zach Johnson, 2007] won the Masters when you can't go for any of the par 5s in two; is it going to be like that, that long, that soft, that hard, that windy?” Woods said.
It seems they talked about anything but the awful golf the two displayed this week. Mickelson finished tied for 76th in the 77-man field. Woods was only slightly better at 72nd. It’s Tiger’s seventh consecutive finish outside the top 35 and Mickelson has now gone five Tour events outside the top 40.
“We didn't play this week the way we wanted to,” Mickelson conceded. “I think it's still in there, I just think it's harder to get four solid rounds without the mistakes, and at this level the quality guys are so good that you just can't make the mistakes that I'm making.”
At this rate the next time we see Tiger and Phil paired together in prominence may be on the first tee at Augusta National as ceremonial starters, or maybe on a random Thursday and Friday at Torrey Pines or Riviera, but not on a Sunday, not with a title on the line. That time has passed.