Is this the end?
As Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson begin their 20th year together on the PGA Tour, it’s impossible not to wonder if the game has permanently passed them by. Last season marked the first time since the mid-’90s that neither of these aging warriors won a pro tournament. Woods will be 40 next year, and his body has broken under the strain of his obsessive workout routine and a lifetime of grinding on the range. (In fact, he has been at it for so long his age should probably be measured in dog years.) Mickelson is an arthritic 44 and for big chunks of 2014 looked strangely lethargic between the ropes. Each new year used to bring tantalizing questions for these Hall of Famers: Will Tiger win the Grand Slam? Can Phil add the U.S. Open to his haul of major championships? Will they finally give us a shootout for the ages, their own Duel in the Sun to put an exclamation point on their linked legacies? Now we just hope they can find enough form to remind us who they used to be.
Woods made his season debut in Phoenix last week, and it was another glum reminder of how times have changed. The old Tiger had everyone beat before he put a peg in the ground. One thing we didn’t have to ponder was whether he’d be around for the weekend; after all, this is a guy who made a record 142 straight cuts, a testament to his tenacity as much as his talent. Now there’s a low roar of anxiety every Thursday, as Woods seems incapable of bringing his game from the range to the first tee, and he is especially vulnerable during the opening round. In Phoenix, Tiger played the first four holes in four over par, and the death watch was on. It is testament to the sad state of affairs that it was considered a moral victory when the most dominant golfer of all time rallied to post a two-over 73. This was just a prelude to Friday’s trainwreck, when Woods toured his first nine holes in 44. We’ve long since grown accustomed to his wild driving, but Woods’s chip-yips were a truly ghoulish sight.
When Tiger muffed and chunked and bladed and chili-dipped a series of chips at the Hero World Challenge in December, he blamed rust and being caught between the techniques of his old and new swing advisers. He went so far as to blame the way the grain was growing around the greens at Isleworth. Because it was his first tournament after a hiatus spent recovering from a back injury, we were inclined to give him a pass. But Woods says he spent the ensuing six weeks hitting “thousands” of practice chips. And yet he was just as yippy in Phoenix. This has nothing to do with mechanics or agronomy—it’s all between the ears. Woods used to have the best head in the game, but it’s glaringly obvious now that, even with his body breaking down, his greatest challenges going forward will be metaphysical.
As for Mickelson, Phoenix is where his legend was born in 1991, when he beat the pros while still an undergrad down the road at Arizona State. He’s no longer the same halcyon free-swinger; in 2014 his average clubhead speed with the big stick was 115.62 mph, which ranked 55th on Tour. (If he had recorded enough attempts to qualify for the stat, Woods would have ranked right above him, at 115.63.) Phil played better than Tiger did in Phoenix—in fact, most everybody did. Woods was last in the 132-man field when he signed for an 82 on Friday (the high round for the week), and at day’s end he was tied at the bottom with local PGA pro Michael Hopper. But after an opening 69 Mickelson staggered in with a Friday 76, undone by what he called “a bunch of dumb mistakes.” In recent years this has been a recurring theme for Phil, who seems to be lacking a fundamental inspiration between the ropes. The majors continue to pique his interest, but it’s impossible to be mediocre for 18 weeks a year and then magically find your edge for the four that matter most. Mickelson played some lively golf at the 2014 PGA Championship and could have salvaged his season with a win there, but he faltered on the 70th hole, when he looked tired and a bit overwrought. All it took was one mistake to get run over by Rory McIlroy, who is leading the charge of the young, hungry talents who are taking over the game.
I suppose we should be thankful we’ve been able to enjoy Tiger and Phil for as long as we have. They have given us innumerable thrills and memories, and it’s a tad selfish to expect it to continue forever. But is it asking too much for each to muster one last run, so we can indulge in a little nostalgia? It feels like it’s now or never. Is it going to happen? The heart says yes, but the mind says no.
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