Get out your Golden Age of Golf time machine, people. Set the dial to April 3, 2018. Now set the latitude and coordinates for 2604 Washington Road, Augusta, Ga. Zoom in to the second-floor porch of the Augusta National clubhouse, where two green-jackets gents of a certain age are watching the unlikely sight of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods concluding a joint practice round.
Later that night, they would be dining together on that second floor, at the Champions Dinner. Turn up the volume your WeHearAll recording device. We can't vouch for the accuracy of this exchange. (It might have been the two coated fellas, it could have been Statler and Waldorf, on a day off from Sesame Street, clubhouse badges around their plastic necks.) We can vouch for the emotion the exchange conveys, as all of golf was abuzz:
Man No. 1: "Tiger and Phil, playing a practice round together. ‘Bout as likely as a month of Sundays."
Man No. 2: "Dat cray-cray."
Phil was coming off his end-the-ohfer (since the 2013 British Open) win at the WGC event in Mexico City. Tiger had played three events on the Tour's Florida Swing, all capably, finishing a shot behind the winner (Paul Casey) at the Tampa event. Tiger-‘n-Phil, 4-ever! Yes, that pre-Masters fever had all sorts of strains running through it. (Jordan! Justin! Dustin! Li'l Rickie!) But when the heaviest of the heavies — Mr. Mickelson, Mr. Woods — came to the Press Building, to the practice range, to the 1st tee, voices hushed and eyes widened and time stopped. But in the cool early-evening air of Friday afternoon, with a score of 149 beside Phil's name and 148 beside Tiger's, the balloon of promise was poked and popped with a two-cent straight pin. The pace of modern life, in sports section and way beyond the reach of the toy department, is mercurial.
And now, back in real time, here we are in the first week in May, getting ready to enjoy the Quail Hollow tournament, aka the Wells Fargo Championship. Following a tradition first established by Jack Nicklaus, the game's leading lights just don't play that much golf and the event at the Quail Hollow Club, where Justin Thomas won last year's PGA Championship so impressively, represents the first time Mickelson and Woods are playing since the Masters. The Charlotte event is one of the best on Tour: good course and range, clubhouse staffers who know what they're doing, a city with knowledgeable fans, excellent restaurants, good hotels. (Tour players aren't looking for all that much.)
Plus a $7.7 million purse, with $1.4 million for the winner. Golf's hype machine — located in Ponte Vedra Beach but aided and abetted most ably by all the usual suspects (here's looking at us!) — is doing its usual early-week huffing and puffing. And no wonder. This is pretty much the Masters redux, field-wise and otherwise: Phil and Tiger, plus Patrick Reed and of course J. Thomas, R. McIlroy, D. Johnson, R. Fowler. Wide fairways with creeks in play. The dulcet sounds of CBS calling the action on the weekend. Should be GREAT — right?
In Charlotte, with the Hornets done and done and no MLB club and the new college basketball season a half-year away, the Wells Fargo Championship is an event. But beyond the Tar Heel state? We can offer no science here, and of course we're going to be watching. (That's what we do!) But we cannot say we're feeling it.
And you know what that means: It'll probably be terrific. The best things in life, including the best sporting events, just sort of creep up on you, but you have to be open to, to use one of Tiger's choice phrases, the process. The lackluster response to Patrick Reed's win at Augusta was rooted in part in expectations: He was not Phil or Tiger (to take you back to the Thursday morning vibe), he was not McIlroy (to revisit Sunday morning), he was not Spieth or Fowler (teleporting Sunday afternoon). When will we ever learn to just lean back in that Barcalounger, take it in and let it-is-what-it-is takeover? We won't. That ship sailed a long time ago and in its place is a 50-foot Mercedes cigarette boat with 3,100 HP engine. Yikes.
And yet, and yet.
What made the WGC Mexico Championship so — to use the word of the day — delicious? (Merci, President Macron.) Phil won and who was expecting that?! What made the Honda Classic so riveting? Several things, including Tiger's T-12 finish. Who was expecting that?
For Phil and Tiger, there's a great deal at stake this week. This week will tell them where they are and what they need to do to get their games in shape for the Players, the Memorial and, most significantly, the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. All of golf, really, is on a continuum. It's true for us, and it's true for them. Both are trying to play their way on to the Ryder Cup team in September. They did not do anything to help their causes in April, at Augusta. Now they have another chance. This time out, unlike last time, they can open the front door, put their hands in the air and yell, "Surprise!"
That is, if they can drive it long and reasonably straight, stay out of the creeks and ponds, lag putt well and not miss too many short ones. Here we go: Masters, Part II: On You Go.