LOUISVILLE, Ky -- On Thursday morning at Valhalla, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson teed off together at a major championship for the 11th time in their Hall-of-Fame careers. Mickelson won this latest showdown in a rout, while Woods hung in to complete 18 holes with a balky back.
There weren’t many positives in Woods’s round, and he was quick to acknowledge as much. “It wasn’t very good. A lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole,” Woods said after signing for a three-over 74, five shots higher than Mickelson and nine shots behind clubhouse leaders Lee Westwood and Kevin Chappell with the afternoon wave still on the course.
Woods said his back was sore but not debilitating and that he’d skip a post-round practice session to see a doctor.
“It’s a little bit stiff, but that’s about it,” he said. “The surgery part is fine, that’s all good. I’m going to go get treatment and make sure this thing is nice and loose for tomorrow.”
Woods withdrew from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on the 9th hole last Sunday, after tweaking his back on an awkward shot from the lip of a fairway bunker at the 2nd. On Thursday morning Woods faced a shot from a similar lie -- an upslope in a fairway bunker on the par-5 18th -- and didn’t hesitate before advancing the ball down the fairway on an easy swing with a wedge. Woods was asked afterward if his sore back was a factor in playing a safe shot.
“No. Because in the bunker shot I could just throw the right hand and just explode it,” he said. Woods’s round included four bogeys and a lone birdie, on a chip-in at the par-4 16th. He was again erratic off the tee, his most glaring weakness since his return last month from March back surgery, highlighted by a pair of ugly hooks on Nos. 1 and 2 -- the latter punctuated by an F-bomb -- that led to bogeys.
Woods had one good birdie chance coming in. After launching his tee shot at the par-5 7th near a concession stand right of the fairway, he received a free drop and ripped a three-wood off a hard-pan lie just short of the green. But he lipped out an eight-footer. “That putt was on top of the right edge and it just didn’t move,” he said.
Although his first priority will be to make the cut, Woods believes he can still play his way into contention. “Right now it’s pretty bunched,” he said. “I just don’t see this golf course getting -- guys going super low here unless we get some rain.”
Mickelson, who in the final round at Bridgestone carded a 10-birdie 62, has said that he gets extra energy from playing with Woods, and he relished the pairing. “Tiger and I enjoy the opportunity,” Mickelson said. “To be able to play together, I appreciate that the PGA did that. That’s cool.”
But the added adrenaline may have worked against Mickelson during the opening holes. On the par-5 10th, his first hole, he sprayed his tee shot more than 30 yards left of the fairway. “It was so far left, I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “I was lucky it wasn’t out of bounds. Horrific.” He scrambled for a par, but on his next hole, a par-3, he fanned an iron and failed to get up-and-down. After splitting the fairway with an iron at the 12th, Mickelson quipped, “That should be O.K.,” which drew smiles from Woods and Padraig Harrington, the third member of the group.
Woods and Mickelson may have a heated rivalry, but you wouldn’t have known it on Thursday, as the pair chatted amicably and frequently. While walking down the 6th fairway, Woods grabbed one of Mickelson’s wedges from caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay and inspected the face before turning to Phil and asking with a sly grin, “You ever hit that on the grooves?” “Oh, I hit it on the grooves,” Mickelson responded, before quickly sharing a story about an equipment project he’s involved with at Callaway. There were no signs of animosity between the longtime adversaries. Mickelson even sounded a little sympathetic toward Woods as he fights his way back from injury.
“I thought he played with a lot of heart,” Mickelson said afterward. “It’s not easy when your game isn’t where you want it and you’re hitting shots that you don’t normally hit, to fight hard.”
Mickelson, meanwhile, showed signs that he could be a factor at this 96th PGA Championship. He birdied three of his last six holes, capped by an 11-foot birdie putt on No. 9, to flip a potential over-par round on its ear and finish at two-under 69.
On Friday, he can pull even in his head-to-head meetings with Woods. The two will tee it up in the same group for the 36th time, and Woods, who once enjoyed a comfortable advantage, now has a 16-15-4 edge. More important, Mickelson could put himself in position to close the gap on Woods in the category he cares most about: major championships.
“I expect to play with a little bit more assertiveness and confidence from the first hole on, from the first swing on,” Mickelson said. “If that’s the case, I believe I have some low rounds in me.”