You couldn't call it a feud exactly, but there had always been a chill between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Maybe it went back to Phil's criticism of Tiger's Nike driver in 2003 ("He hates it that I can fly it past him now"). Or maybe Tiger was jealous of Phil's doting galleries. Or maybe Phil wished he looked more svelte in those form-fitting mock turtlenecks that Tiger popularized. The New York Times gathered the evidence, including a smoking-gun quote from Kenny Perry ("Tiger and Phil don't get along"), in a 2005 article.
Whatever the case, the game's two brightest stars clearly didn't like each other all that much, especially during the 2004 Ryder Cup, where they looked like the most uncomfortable pairing since Bing Crosby sang Christmas carols with David Bowie.
But as the Presidents Cup begins in Montreal, you can sense a thaw between Tiger and Phil, even if they're not BFF. The reason appears to be the U.S. team's favorite off-course distraction: Ping-Pong.
That's right, like Mao and Nixon, Tiger and Phil have created a bond through Ping-Pong, and it is one that will be continued this week in Montreal, where tables are now as requisite in the players' clubhouse as lavish buffets. The International team plays too; Vijay Singh actually withdrew from a tournament once because of a table tennis injury.
Tiger's passion for the game is well-documented. In a 60 Minutes interview, he told Ed Bradley that his relentless hunger for winning extended to the Ping-Pong table.
"And if we were to play Ping-Pong, your goal would be to ..." Bradley asked.
"I'd beat you," Tiger said.
"And if you didn't, you'd really be ..." Bradley continued.
"We'd do it again," Tiger said.
It's a telling moment in the interview, and Bradley captures the obsessive, almost freakish nature of Tiger's competitiveness. His table-tennis bravado actually reminded me of a favorite Onion headline: Ping-Pong Somehow Elicits Macho Posturing: 'Boo-Ya! How You Like Me Now?' Says Ping-Pong Playing Man.
The earliest reported Tiger-vs.-Phil Ping-Pong result that we could find took place at the 2004 Ryder Cup. According to Dan O'Neil of MSNBC, Tiger took the first match 3 to 2. However, Phil alluded to victories over Tiger in a March 2004 interview with The Golf Channel. "You know, Tiger is an incredible athlete, in other areas, although he struggled with me at Ping-Pong."
They met again at the 2005 Ryder Cup in Virginia. Jack Nicklaus, the U.S. captain and an unimpeachable witness, said that Tiger took the first match and the second, but Phil was playing with a handicap — a buffet table was too close behind him, which affected his movement (and possibly his concentration).
"They went out and played the first game, Tiger won; they played the second game, Tiger won," Nicklaus said. "And Phil said, 'I've got this buffet behind me and I can't swing. Tiger, switch sides with me.' He said, 'Sure.' So they switch sides and Phil wins. Phil says, 'Let's play another one,' and Tiger says, 'Uh-uh, two to one.' And they never played again. But they were giggling about it and had fun."
Nicklaus's story is a good illustration of how the Tiger-Phil rivalry has become more good-natured over the years. When Tiger's daughter Sam was born this summer, Phil's gift was a miniature Ping-Pong table (a perfect gift for the girl who can have anything) along with a gently ribbing note: "Our kids have had a little head start on Sam Alexis and expect them to continue the Mickelson domination over the Woods in pong. But we thought we should give Sam Alexis a chance to jump-start her own game."
If Sam Alexis is anything like her father, we know where this is going.