It's time for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to compete again as partners
There's been talk lately about how to inject more pizzazz into the Presidents Cup, which kicks off Thursday at Ohio's Muirfield Village. A win by Adam Scott, Ernie Els and the rest of the International troupe (Sterne! Matsuyama! de Jonge!) would certainly help; the last time the "rest of the world" triumphed, Bill Clinton hadn't been impeached and "You've Got Mail" hadn't been released. The Internationals are golf's Washington Generals.
Getting fans involved would boost interest. Why not empower folks, through online voting, to decide the pairings for one of the four-ball or foursomes sessions? Better yet, allow them to decide the singles lineups. Heck, fans are already determining a Sunday hole location at a major championship -- what's a few pairings at the Presidents Cup?
Spicing up the format might also help, if for no other reason than to differentiate the Presidents Cup from it much hotter, richer and more popular older sister, the Ryder Cup. Require each team to add one female player. Or hold a Friday evening skills contest with a point or two up for grabs. Or how about an alternate-primate format in which a chimp in plus-fours hits every second shot?
Too much? Probably. Which is why I'm proposing a simpler solution that would pay immediate ratings-grabbing dividends: U.S. captain Fred Couples should dust off the old "Dream Team" and pair Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson.
Couples said Tuesday that 11 of his players want to play with Woods, but “Phil probably won’t.” Really? Why not? It’s been nine years -- a lifetime in golf years -- since golf’s version of AOL and Time Warner self-combusted at the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Or at least that’s how we’ve been programmed to remember that “disastrous” Friday. But, really, was the Tiger-Phil coupling that catastrophic? Hal Sutton’s Grand Experiment makes every list of “Worst Tactical Errors by a Ryder Cup Captain,” but it’s not like Woods and Mickelson were drubbed 7&6, and, as far as I know, they didn’t come to fisticuffs in the players’ parking lot, either. They simply lost a pair of hard fought first-day matches on the 17th and 18th greens, respectively.
To be sure, it wasn't their finest moment, what with Woods shooting Lefty a Hogan-grade death glare toward the end of their foursomes match, and Lefty mysteriously adding a new Callaway ball and woods to his arsenal just days before the contest. But can we fairly render final judgment on their effectiveness as partners from the result of two matches played in 2004? Whatever happened to due process?
"I would love to play with Phil," Woods said on the Monday of that Ryder Cup week, before Sutton had announced his pairings. "As talented as he is, I mean, how could you not want to play [with him]?"
A day later, after the pairings had been revealed, Mickelson was equally complimentary, both to Woods and himself.
"I love the pairing of Tiger and myself," Lefty gushed. "I think we are both very excited about it."
Woods knew the partnership wasn't guaranteed to bear fruit, citing his seemingly invincible pairing at the 1999 Ryder Cup with then World No. 2 David Duval (Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood dispatched the U.S. super-team, 1 up). But Woods also spoke of the potential payoff of pairing two giants: "You've seen Watson and Nicklaus go at it and they have won matches. Nicklaus and Palmer in the Ryder Cup together. It can be perceived as both ways. But I think if [Phil and I] win matches it will be perceived as a huge plus."
Ya think? Imagine if just a couple more putts had dropped for Tiger and Phil on Oakland Hills' menacing greens. Imagine if they had scratched out a couple of points together. How might that have changed not only the outcome of that Ryder Cup but also the entire narrative of one of the game's enduring rivalries?
Prevailing wisdom says that Phil and Tiger don't like one other. That may well be true, but there aren't exactly mountains of evidence to support it. Some of the perception stems from locker-room hearsay. Some of it is based on snarky comments Mickelson made not about Woods but about Woods's equipment -- 11 years ago. And some of it is rooted in how fans and the media interpreted that fateful Friday in Michigan: Tiger and Phil stunk up the joint. Tiger scowled at Phil. So that seals it -- they're nemeses for life.
But what if calamitous chemistry wasn't to blame? What if each of them simply had a bad day? It happens all the time. Great players don't always play great golf. In 2004, it's worth remembering, Woods was working through a swing change under Hank Haney. He had recorded just one top-10 finish in the majors that season (a T9 at the British Open) and Vijay Singh had supplanted him as the world's top-ranked player.
Mickelson had his own issues. In April of that year, he had finally shaken the major monkey off his back with a stirring win at Augusta National. But in his two starts in the month leading up to the Ryder Cup, Lefty failed to place in the top 40. He also was negotiating a contentious split with his long-time equipment sponsor, Titleist. So neither player was trending up heading into Oakland Hills, and it showed even when Woods and Mickelson weren't paired with one other.
Mickelson won a Saturday alternate-shot match with David Toms, but was thumped by Sergio Garcia, 3&2, in singles. Woods looked energized in his Saturday four-ball match with partner Chris Riley, cruising to a 4&3 win, but in an alternate-shot match later that day, he and Davis Love III were waxed, 4&3, by Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley.
In team events since then, Woods and Mickelson have continued their unsteady play. In recent years it appeared Woods had found a BPF (Best Partner Forever) in Steve Stricker. Then Tiger and "Stricks" went a soul-crushing 0-3 at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. Does that mean Woods will never play well again with Stricker? Of course not. Just as we should not assume that a Woods-Mickelson pairing is incapable of producing points.
Tiger and Phil are different players than they were in 2004. Woods is more vulnerable, less imposing, and in the midst of grooving yet another swing change. Mickelson is smarter, more seasoned, a British Open champion (like you would have believed that that would ever happen). They're different people, too. Woods -- well, where to begin? He's more exposed, more scarred, and now adjusting to life as a divorcee with two young children and a celebrity girlfriend. Mickelson has had his own distractions. His wife and mother were both diagnosed with cancer and he has waged his own battle with psoriatic arthritis. He has spoken eloquently about the strength and perspective that those experiences have instilled in him.
I'm not suggesting that these chapters in Woods and Mickelson's lives somehow make them better suited as match-play partners. But their stories are a reminder that nine years is a long time. Stuff happens. People change. Animosities dissipate. Bygones, as they say, become bygones. Aren't you curious about how Tiger and Lefty would mesh in 2013? Aren't they curious? In 1992, Mickelson's beloved San Diego Chargers started the season 0-4 before winning 11 of their next 12 games to qualify for the playoffs (where they won another game). Couldn't Phil and Tiger become the '92 Chargers of match-play partners?
It's worth exploring. Think about the spark it would bring to the Presidents Cup and to the game in general. And who better than Freddy, in all his Zen-ness, to broker the partnership? "Phil, Woodsy, can I grab you guys for a moment? I've been thinking..."
Surely Tiger and Phil -- arguably the two most competitive players of their generation -- would embrace the challenge and the chance at redemption. Isn't that what golf (and life) is all about, especially for two players who have already accomplished so much? This is the kind of dumb prediction that sportswriters live to rue, but it's hard to imagine Dream Team II failing. Both players are too driven to allow a repeat of 2004. Both players are too proud. And, who knows, Tiger and Phil might just be more compatible than we've all been led to believe. Woods said as much back in 2004.
"I thought we gelled," he said after the dust had settled at Oakland Hills. "We just didn't make enough putts."