LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They are the major characters in this major championship, the 96th PGA, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, at least for a couple days, facing each other and facing the probability they may never pass this way again.
The game is one of personalities, of stars, and during the past decade there have been no greater leading men than Woods and Mickelson, in popularity and frequency on the scoreboard.
For two rare days, Woods and Mickelson are in the same grouping, perhaps for the final time in a major.
It is our good fortune that the individuals who whimsically arranged the pairings set the game’s two giants of the past generation against one another.
There were rounds in the Masters when Woods thumped Mickelson, and there was that final day in the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am when Mickelson, in the same grouping, beat Woods by 11 strokes.
Tiger has his fans, and his 14 majors. Phil has his fans, and his five majors. The PGA has them together, along with the Irishman Padraig Harrington.
Since Mickelson is 44, although trying desperately to play at an age much younger, and Woods is a well-worn 38, the legitimate question is whether we’ll ever see them paired once more in a major. Or any event.
“Tiger and I enjoy the opportunity,” said Mickelson, who Thursday began with a credible two-under 69 after having gone two over in his first eight holes.
“We don’t get paired a lot together. We are usually at the opposite end of the spectrums. I appreciate the PGA [for pairing them]. That’s cool.”
Particularly for the thousands of fans roaming hilly Valhalla Golf Club, who, with a temperature in the 80s, were anything but cool physically.
They hoped for history. What they got instead were memories.
The big crowd swarmed to the 10th tee, where Woods, Mickelson and Harrington began their day. The sense of expectation was fueled with plenty of vocal support, the normal “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” and “Come on, Phil," punctuating the din.
|Phil Mickelson vs. Tiger Woods Head-to-Head|
|Overall||Before 2007||2007 and After||Final Round matchups|
|Phil Mickelson||13-13-4||5-10-3||8-3-1||5-0 (w/ 19-stroke advantage)|
“Unfortunately, Phil and I just never get paired together,” said Woods. In his 11th round of golf since back surgery March 31, he opened with a three-over 74.
“The man looks like he needs to play golf,” was the observation of Harrington, the third in the group, commenting on Woods’ rustiness.
Woods said even with a score that included only one birdie, it’s “always fun” to play with Mickelson, an unusual occurrence.
“Usually,” Woods pointed out, “if you look at most majors, we have exact tee times, just opposite sides [of the pairings]. We just don’t ever get paired together the first two days. A few times on the weekend, but we’ve got to play our way there.”
After falling nine shots back, it’s doubtful Woods even will play his way into the final two days this tournament.
“It’s kind of like he hasn’t had enough rounds,” added Harrington, who began with a two-over 73.
Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports, Dodgers-Giants, Auburn-Alabama, Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer and, obliquely, because except in match play golf doesn’t set up the chances, Woods-Mickelson.
They don’t exactly play each other but they play a course, while alongside each other.
On Thursday, Mickelson was more than satisfied with the way he played Valhalla. Woods, who won the PGA here in 2000, so long ago, was dissatisfied.
“I felt so good heading into the tournament,” said Mickelson. “I had a great final round last week, Sunday [a 62 in the Bridgestone], but I also had three great practice days. My game felt really sharp. I stood on the first tee [10th hole] for the first time this year like I was ready to play, ready to win the championship. I hit the ugliest shot.”
Woods’ shots weren’t necessarily lovely. His 11th hole, the second, he drilled a ball into a river which snakes through the property, but he managed to one-putt for a bogey.
“I didn’t play as well as I wanted,” Woods conceded, “and I didn’t get a putt to the hole. That’s not a good combo.”
Woods and Mickelson may not be particularly friendly—remember when, even if jesting, Mickelson ripped the Nike clubs that Woods was then using?—but they do respect each other. Or appear to.
So Mickelson was as complimentary as possible about Woods’ ineffective golf.
“I thought he played with a lot of heart,” said Mickelson. “It’s not easy when your game isn’t where you want it, and you’re hitting shots you don’t normally hit, to fight hard.
“I thought the second hole was a great example, when he hooked it into the water, and a lot of guys would just not play as focused, not put it all in the next shot. He grinded out a bogey, made a great up-and-down, made a 15-footer. I thought it showed a lot of heart.”
That’s to be expected, from Woods, from Mickelson. They haven’t reached the game’s pinnacle because of a lack of effort.
Through the seasons we’ve seen them both come through in difficult situations. What we seldom have seen is Woods and Mickelson together during the first two rounds of a major championship.
This one was uncommon. And special.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.