News & Opinion

Woods, Mickelson warm up to new era

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Dr. Peter Venkman warned the mayor in “Ghostbusters” of a coming otherworldly disaster of biblical proportions. Bill Murray’s pseudo-scientific character underscored the level of alarm by wailing, “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

It sounds a lot like Tuesday morning at the Masters. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played a nine-hole practice round. Together. As partners. At Augusta National.

Had CBS been on air, the event would’ve been billed as “A practice round unlike any other!”

It was so big that GolfChannel.com dusted off its “Tiger Tracker” for the occasion, ostensibly to report on the round. But because cellphones and communications devices of any kind aren’t allowed on the course, even for the news media, that wasn’t exactly possible.

An example of the breathless coverage of the start: “Was soooooooo stinking cool. Looks like a lot of people were on the first, but they rolled up on the 10th tee with only a couple hundred patrons.”

The passage of time changes all things. It was quite unusual for Woods and Mickelson to play a practice round together in anything other than a team event such as a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. To do it before a major championship that they both hope (let’s be honest here: intend) to win? Yes, cats and dogs are clearly roommates now.

It was accompanied by mass hysteria. In case you missed TigerMania the first time around in 1997, when he played his initial Masters as a professional, won by 12 and made runner-up Tom Kite seem like some kind of B Flight champion, welcome to TigerMania 2.0. The hysteria hasn’t reached Defcon1 levels yet, although we came close four weeks ago when Woods contended at the Valspar Championship.

This Tuesday morning, meltdown came closer still.

“It seemed like there were a lot of people out there,” Mickelson dead-panned. “They seemed pretty excited. The two eagles that Tiger put on them led to some pretty nice roars.”

Two eagles? Woods holed a 15-foot putt for eagle at the par-5 13th and a 4-footer at the par-5 15th. Woods and Mickelson were playing partners in a match against Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters. 

“We partnered up and had some fun,” Mickelson said. “We had a five-hole stretch where we were 7 under par. That was some fun.”

Maybe U.S. captain Hal Sutton wasn’t wrong when he paired the chilly rivals as a duo in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, where they flamed out badly and the American side quickly followed suit. Maybe Sutton simply was 14 years ahead of his time.

The world’s golf media appeared to pounce on this surprising new side of Woods and Mickelson. One writer asked about this new “burgeoning romance,” and Mickelson fashioned a wry smile. “I don’t know if I’d phrase it the way you did,” he said, grinning. “But I don’t want to hold you back.”

Woods has been more forthcoming this year than at any time in his career, which frankly is a pretty low bar. He even approached being philosophical.

“Phil is 47 and I’m 42,” Woods said. “We have had a great 20-year battle, and 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 was going to be No. 1.”

Well, there was no battle for that. It was all Tiger, all the time.

“We’re at the tail end of our careers; we both know that,” Woods said. “We have gone through it for so long, our friendship has certainly gotten a lot better.”

If this is starting to sound like an episode of “Care Bears,” rest assured that the laughter and backslapping stops when the first ball is pegged Thursday morning (tee times).

The amusement factor won’t be like the one Tuesday at the 10th tee, where the order of play was determined in a unique fashion.

“We went right in order: four-three-one-zero,” Mickelson said, referring to the number of Masters jackets won by the members of the group, e.g., Woods, Mickelson, Couples and Pieters, respectively. “It was a respect thing.”

Tuesday’s dog-and-cat-and-pony show was memorable for two big reasons. One, Woods and Mickelson are playing well and are legitimate contenders to win Nos. 5 and 4, respectively. Pieters summarized Woods in three words: “He was brilliant.” Mickelson’s take was similar: “I’m excited to see him playing so well, and he is playing so well.”

Two, this newer level of respect and friendship that gradually has replaced what once was a Cold War between the competitors is refreshing, if it is indeed authentic. Woods and Mickelson often have been compared to their forerunners, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, also giants of the game. Mickelson was like the crowd-pleasing Palmer, making charges and famous blunders, smiling through it all and connecting with fans. Woods was like the young Nicklaus, taking names and prisoners in a cold-blooded fashion because of his skill and being slow to gain popularity because he had the temerity to take down Palmer, The King. Nicklaus reinvented himself and his image in the early 1970s and won over the fans with his greater longevity and his sportsmanship.

What we’re seeing now from Woods and Mickelson is the first time their relationship could begin to be compared to that of Nicklaus and Palmer, who were fierce but friendly rivals in golf and in business and eventually, after the competitive fires finally faded, close friends.

In the long term, the next two decades will determine whether Woods and Mickelson can emulate such a model.

In the short term, one of them might be poised to make startling history this week, whether it’s Mickelson, at 47, becoming the oldest Masters champion (sorry, Jack) or Woods completing a shocking comeback from spinal fusion for a 15th major title and resuming the chase for the record of 18 majors (sorry again, Jack). 

Either event would make this a Masters unlike any other.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle