Rory McIlroy spoke for even the most casual of golf observers when he walked up to Tiger Woods on the range Tuesday.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” McIlroy said. “Tiger and Phil playing a practice round together.”
Phil, as in Phil Mickelson. Yeah, that happened Tuesday morning at the Masters.
Woods and Mickelson went out on the back nine at Augusta, and as teammates no less, emptying the pockets of Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters as Woods eagled both par-5s.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? Tom Brady and Roger Goodell? Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler? The Red Sox and Yankees? Michael Jordan and, well, every franchise he ever ruined?
It was about as unlikely a pairing as it gets.
“Phil was off yesterday, came in here to register, and he asked (caddie) Joey (LaCava) if we were free for a game,” Woods said. “So Phil and I talked about it and decided to play today.”
The pair seemed to be having a good time together in team events the last few years, with Woods injured and taking on a vice captain’s role, but no one saw this coming.
“Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” Woods said. “I think it’s just age. We’re at the tail end of our careers. We both know that. He’s 47, I’m 42 and we’ve 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 was going to be No. 1. That was then and certainly this is now.”
Woods has never appeared as happy, outgoing and friendly as he’s been this season since surviving the latest back surgery and called it a “miracle” that he’s playing golf again.
During that period, Mickelson was quietly supporting Woods and rooting for his comeback.
“When he was going through a tough time, I wanted to do whatever I could to help out, because oftentimes that’s when people aren’t there,” Mickelson said. “Nobody respects and appreciates what he’s done for the game more because nobody’s benefitted more than I have.
“I’m very appreciative of what he’s done for me, my family and the game of golf.”
For all of their ups and downs in an adversarial relationship the last two decades, Mickelson has never been shy about crediting Woods for making him a very wealthy man.
“I’ve seen it before he came along — I had five years on Tour — and I remember winning the Tucson Open in 1991 and the entire purse was a million dollars,” Mickelson said. “I remember wondering if we would ever have a first-place check of a million dollars.
“He comes along and the rate of growth was exponential. We were then playing for $2 million. He made that happen, not to mention the increased exposure, bringing golf to the front page, the television ratings and the (financial) opportunities off the golf course.
“I’ve reaped the rewards in the good times, and I wanted to do what I could in the tough times.”
Of course, without Woods in the game the last 20 years, Mickelson might also have another half-dozen majors and 25 more victories.
“It’s very possible that it’s the case,” Mickelson allowed. “It’s also possible he brought out the best in me and forced me to work harder and ultimately achieve the success that I’ve had.
“I’ve appreciated the challenge and also appreciate the level of greatness he’s had in his career. I’ve enjoyed competing with him.
“It’s been tough dealing with as much failure as I’ve had against him, but I have enjoyed the challenge.”
What seemed like genuine dislike — something they both now deny — turned the corner, says Mickelson, when Woods was a vice captain in the year leading up to the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, when they worked closely on a new American game plan.
And Tuesday they played their first practice round together that Mickelson could even remember, outside of team events. With huge crowds and huge roars, the pair had a five-hole stretch of 7-under and took apart Couples and Pieters.
Now, there appears to be a genuine friendship.
“To see him back out playing is incredible, and we all feel that,” Mickelson said. “I texted him when he was playing at Valspar that it felt like it was a different time continuum, because I felt myself pulling so hard for him.
“It was unusual.
“I want him to play well and I’m excited to see him playing so well.”
It is stunning and it is good for the game.
Two of the greatest ever coming together like this is also healthy for golf fans often divided into Tiger and Phil camps. It certainly softens the image of both and makes it easier for a golf nation divided to celebrate both.
Enjoy it now because — as Woods said — this will not last forever.
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