Inside the ropes with Tiger, Phil, G-Mac

Tiger Woods, Graeme McDowell and Phil Mickelson were paired together Thursday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Fred Vuich/SI

DORAL, Fla. — Who would've thought that pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together on a Thursday would cause the apocalypse?

That's what it felt like here at Doral, where just moments before Woods, Mickelson and Graeme McDowell were scheduled to tee off, lightning was spotted in the area and play was delayed. Minutes later, the storm rolled in and gusts exceeding 50 miles per hour knocked down trees, scoreboards and TV towers. In all, the storm lasted about 30 minutes, but the cleanup took two hours. At one point a scuba team (are they on call at Doral?) fished a TV tower out of a lake.

\nSo, I'll ask this: are we sure it's a good idea to keep Tiger and Phil paired together? With one eye on the clouds, I ducked back inside the ropes with McDowell, Woods and Mickelson (the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-ranked players in the world) for their opening round. Here's what I saw.

\n- It's a packed house at the par-5 10th hole, where the crowd is waiting to greet the day's marquee threesome. Subplot to watch: which player will get the most love from the gallery? Many fans stand to cheer when Woods appears, but Phil's ovation is just as loud. McDowell gets a nice greeting, too. Tiger and Phil tee off with fairway woods, and both find the left side of the fairway. McDowell pulls out his driver and pushes it into the right rough. And we're off.

\n- Woods and Mickelson chat all the way up the 10th fairway. Seems friendly. Both lay up, as does McDowell from the deep rough.

\n- McDowell drops a 20-footer for birdie, then Mickelson cans his own putt to start one under. Tiger pars.

\n- While walking to the 11th tee, McDowell sips a sports drink and kibitzes with a media member about other long putts he's made during the Florida swing. You might say the guy is loose.

\n- After the group tees off at the tricky little par-4 11th, Phil walks along the right side near the gallery, where one (possibly over-served) fan hollers, "Nice shoes, Phil!" This makes Mickelson laugh.

\n- On the 12th tee, Tiger finishes his swing with only his left arm on the club, and the result is a pull hook that's left of everything. As Mickelson and McDowell walk down the fairway, Woods remains back on the tee box quietly rehearsing follow-throughs.

\n- Tiger gets back in play with a brilliant long iron out of the junk. Umbrellas come out as a light rain begins to fall. Mickelson, who drilled his tee shot, reaches in two, misses the eagle putt and taps in for birdie. McDowell and Woods par.

\n- On the par-3 13th tee, the distinct jingle of an ice cream truck breaks the silence right in Mickelson's backswing. No matter. He's safely on the green and his birdie putt burns the edge. Woods pulls another tee shot and bogeys. McDowell gets up and down from the sand for par.

\n- McDowell and Tiger have a long, animated chat as they walk up the 14th fairway. Meanwhile, off in the distance, fireworks, yes, fireworks blast away. What holiday could this city possibly be celebrating right now? The Week Before St. Patrick's Day? Fat Thursday? I need help here.

\n- After all three players narrowly miss birdie tries, they arrive at the 18th, where on Wednesday I watched Woods splash two tee shots into the lake. Mental demons for Tiger? Not today. He pipes one up the right side of the fairway. McDowell hits his first poor tee shot since the 10th hole and bogeys. As they make the turn, our scoreboard reads, McDowell: -1, Phil: -1, Tiger: +1.

\n- Everyone birdies the easily gettable par-5 1st hole, although Woods had an eagle putt lip out. His tee shots haven't been great, but his iron play has been solid. The putts just aren't dropping.

\n- On the third hole Woods pulls his drive but hits a great approach out of the left rough to set up his second birdie in three holes. He's one behind Phil, who had taken the lead in the "who will the gallery cheer louder" competition until that putt dropped.

\n- On the par-3 fourth hole, McDowell hits his sweetest iron of the day to set up a birdie. Woods yanks another one, and afterward he takes a little stroll off the left side of the tee box, away from the gallery, to rehearse some swings, mutter to himself and stare at the lake. He chips up and putts in for par.

\n- Still on the fourth, Mickelson's tee shot plugs so deep into the bunker he can't tell if it's his ball, which prompts him to call in a rules official. (I strolled past the bunker, and couldn't see even a speck of golf ball in there.) "So a year ago we changed the rule to where you have to identify your ball in the hazard," Mickelson tells the ref. "I can't tell if this is mine." Together Phil and the official brush away enough sand to I.D. the ball. Mickelson takes a mighty lash that extracts the ball from the hazard — but barely. Bogey.

\n- On No. 5 Woods again narrowly misses a birdie putt. McDowell chunks his approach and bogeys. McDowell's driving has been decent and his putting has been great. Woods is struggling to find the fairway, pulling off all the trouble shots, but can't buy a putt. Mickelson has been the most consistent tee to green, and if not for that plugged ball on No. 4, he'd be leading the group.

\n- McDowell and Woods have another chat while walking up the sixth fairway. I haven't seen Woods and Mickelson talk for an extended length since their first hole of the day. Woods's tee shot is in the right rough, and this time his escape shot clips a palm. McDowell hits another chunky iron that comes up 20 yards short. Phil gets on in regulation.

\n- The horn sounds and the group plays out the hole. Woods gets up and down for par. McDowell can't recover from his portly iron shot and bogeys. Mickelson two-putts for par.

\n- Woods and McDowell quickly hop into carts and are whisked away. Mickelson lingers back for a couple extra minutes to sign autographs, then he climbs into a cart and high-fives fans as he's driven away. I'm giving him the narrow edge as "crowd favorite" today.

\n- Final scores through 15 holes: Mickelson: -2, McDowell: -1, Woods: -1. No one lit it up, but all are still in it. They'll pick it back up at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

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