Jack and Arnie will always have their playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open. Nicklaus and Trevino remain inextricably linked by a rubber snake at Merion. Nicklaus and Watson bask forever in the afterglow of the Duel in the Sun. But Tiger and Phil—the greatest rivalry of the past two decades—have yet to produce a defining mano-y-mano at the majors. Yes, they tangled at Augusta in 2001 and at Bethpage in 2002, but to that point Mickelson was still an extravagantly talented underachiever, and no one really believed he could hang with Tiger. At the 2009 Masters they were paired on Sunday and toured the front nine in a combined 63 shots, but neither went on to win, rendering the pyrotechnics irrelevant. No, until further notice, the single most electric Sunday these two have shared was at Doral in 2005.
Mickelson was coming off what remains his best season, including his breakthrough at Augusta, and he arrived at Doral having won two of his three previous starts with some crazy-low scores, notably a 60 at Phoenix and a 62 at Spyglass Hill. Woods was a year into a swing overhaul with Hank Haney and had lost some of his aura of invincibility, as he hadn’t claimed a major championship since the 2002 U.S. Open. For the first time since their junior days, you could make the case with a straight face that Mickelson was the more complete golfer. With all of this as the backdrop, it was no wonder that Woods played with a seething intensity on that Sunday at Doral, which began with Mickelson holding a two-stroke lead. On the par-3 4th hole, Phil the Thrill stuffed his tee shot to five feet, while Woods missed the green and chipped 10 feet by. But in a classic match-play scenario, Woods poured in his tricky par putt and Mickelson missed his birdie try. On the next hole, Woods nicked the flag with his approach for a kick-in birdie. One back.
Woods drew even with a birdie at the par-5 10th, and then at the par-5 12th he made one of the most memorable swings of his epic career: a smote 3-wood from 290 yards to the heart of the green. You just knew he was going to make the putt, and when he did Woods loosed a vintage fist pump. Thus rattled, Mickelson missed his birdie attempt. For the first time all week he was trailing.
But the next two holes went a long way toward reshaping Phil’s reputation: He responded with resounding birdies to draw even. Those lucky enough to be on the scene were losing their collective minds. “It was electric,” Woods said. “It was definitely bipartisan out there. You could hear Phil’s fans, you could hear Tiger’s fans. They were [all] yelling at the top of their lungs. When we got to the tee boxes, my ears were ringing."
Still tied on the 71st hole, Woods drilled a 30-footer to again seize the advantage; those were the days when Tiger never missed an important putt. Phil had one last gasp at 18. Chipping from behind the green for birdie, with the flagstick out, he singed the edge of the cup. Game over. Woods’s closing 66 gave him a tournament record score of 24 under but, more to the point, returned him to the top of the World Ranking, ending Vijay Singh’s hegemony. The momentum from Doral carried Tiger to his fourth Masters victory a month later, beginning the second act of a career during which he’d win six majors in a three-year span, culminating in his myth-making triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open. That remains his last major.
Mickelson was elevated even in defeat. Later in 2005 he took the PGA Championship, followed by the ’06 Masters, a stretch of transcendent play that pushed him into the Hall of Fame. That day at Doral gave Mickelson a different kind of confidence when it came to competing against Woods, and in the years that followed he has often bested the player that used to own him. No, Doral is not a major, but when it comes to this rivalry, it’s the best we’ve got. “What a day,” Woods said when it was all over. “If you’re not nervous on a day like this, you’re not alive.”
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