AUGUSTA, Ga. – They didn't win, the two players who so command our attention. But Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson reminded us why we watch, and they brought thunderous applause to Augusta National.
"It was a great show," CBS's Nick Faldo said on the air, laughing as he spoke for all of us. "It was a fantastic show."
Mickelson made a stirring charge on the front nine, carding a record-tying, six-under-par 30 to get to 10-under for the tournament. But Phil's appeal has always been, at least partly, his unpredictability, and that cuts both ways.
When he hit a 9-iron into Rae's Creek on the par-3 12th hole, he evoked Geoff Ogilvy's comment about Tiger's heroics at Bay Hill this year: "Everyone is impressed, but no one is surprised." Mickelson fought back with a birdie on 13, but he missed putts inside six feet on 15 (for eagle) and 17 (for birdie). Eventually, he ran out of holes.
He bogeyed the 18th to card a 67 and finish nine under.
"I got it going," Mickelson said. "There were a lot of pins you could get to. I knew that before I even teed off."
Woods also did more than enough to make it exciting. He birdied the par-5 second hole, made a handful of tough par putts and eagled the par-5 eighth to get to seven under. Birdies on 13, 15 and 16 got him to within one of Kenny Perry's lead, but it wasn't enough. Woods was absent his A-game, either missing wildly off the tee or hitting his approach shots on the wrong shelf, or off the green. He left himself tricky chips and more lag putts than birdie putts. A bogey at 17, his first of the day, sealed his fate.
"I hit it so bad today warming up," Woods said. "I was hitting quick hooks, blocks, you name it. I hit it all on the range, and then on the first hole I almost hit it into eight fairway. It's one of the worst tee shots I've ever hit starting out. I fought my swing all day and just kind of Band-Aided around and almost won the tournament with a Band-Aid swing today."
You would have thought it was 1997, to judge by the scene as players, caddies, coaches and hangers-on arrived for the final round. Kultida Woods, dressed entirely in red, including a visor the size of a lampshade, strode up in the middle of a red-shirted, Nike-swooshed Tiger posse.
"Hi, Fluff," she said to caddie Mike Cowan, Tiger's former bag man whose marshmallow mustache matched his white coveralls. "Good luck, today."
"Hi, Ma Woods," Cowan said back as he rubbed a towel over Jim Furyk's grips.
Tida continued on, and stopped under the club's huge oak tree to hobnob with Nike majordomo Phil Knight, also dressed head-to-toe in red. Everyone was abuzz over the 1:35 p.m. pairing, which promised to be good and delivered better than that.
Alas, this was not 1997, the year Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes. Nor was it 2006, when Woods helped Mickelson into his second green jacket. Back then, it seemed that for the foreseeable future the two best players in the world would simply be taking turns winning the Masters.
On this Masters Sunday, Tiger and Phil started the day at four under, seven behind and in need of a miracle that seemed far-fetched even before they both pulled their opening tee shots into the trees on opposite sides of the first fairway.
CBS was gaga over the pairing of the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, because we're still fascinated by them. Only now, with their games in very different places than they were 12 or even three years ago, we're fascinated for different reasons.
Woods has always commanded the spotlight with his short game. But there's another reason why we can't tear ourselves away, and that reason is to see how long he can stay atop the ziggurat. He often seems to win tournaments now by one stroke, with a clutch birdie putt or two in fading daylight. His sense of the moment is mesmerizing, but without Sean O'Hair playing like a dead man walking at Bay Hill two weeks ago, Woods doesn't even get the chance to play the hero. All of which begs several questions:
Has Woods come back to the field? Has the field caught up to Woods? Has he not had enough time playing at full strength after major knee surgery last summer? While his stock miss has always been to the right, he started hooking the ball at Augusta this week, making double-bogey on the first hole after a wide-left drive Saturday, and flashing the old one-armed follow-through after the same shot Sunday.
"Tiger's going backward this week," GOLF Magazine Top-100 teacher Brady Riggs said. "He's not hitting the ball as well now as he was hitting it Thursday."
Woods has become such a spray hitter off the tee, and such a consistent winner in spite of it, Peter Jacobsen recently called him "the second coming of Seve Ballesteros."
You can't help but wonder, even though we've all been wondering it for years: How long can Woods keep winning like that? Don't the must-make putts eventually stop dropping? Doesn't someone younger finally refuse to buckle in his presence?
Aura is obviously unquantifiable, because to look at his stats you can't figure out how Woods is still winning. He had played only eight measurable rounds coming into the Masters — the Accenture Match Play does not count, statistically speaking — and was hitting just 60.71% of fairways (103rd on Tour), and 61.11% of greens in regulation (tied for 160th). He was 56th in putting. How did he have a W and a top-10 coming into this Masters? How is he still on track to break Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major victories — 14 and counting — albeit maybe a few years later than we'd predicted?
Here's another burning question, given Woods's well-chronicled intolerance for mediocrity, and his relentless work ethic: Will he blow up his swing under coach Hank Haney and start over? He's completely retooled his action more than once, and very successfully. Fighting the both-way misses, he may decide to do it again.
But check the record, you say. The man has won six majors since 2005, which is hardly cause for firing your coach. But for Woods, that doesn't matter. He won a bunch of majors under Butch Harmon, too, and by as many as 15 strokes.
Could Woods begin to find the fairway if he slows down his swing down?
"It probably would be even wilder if he did that," Riggs said. "If it's crooked going fast, it's going to be crooked going slow."
So you have to wonder: What will Tiger do next?
That's usually a question reserved for Mickelson, the other half of this vexing equation. The winner of two tournaments already in 2009 as he came into this week, Mickelson went on a crowd-pleasing run on the front nine Sunday, electrifying the massive gallery of patrons who gravitated to the dream pairing.
But with Mickelson, who boomed his drives past Tiger's all day, there's always a, "Yeah, but …" As teacher Riggs puts it, "Phil's just a weird guy. He's very competitive, he's got a brilliant short game, but he seems to always make mistakes." Big mistakes. On Sunday, we kept looking for the killer, the one he wouldn't be able to recover from. For a moment we thought it was the terrible pull-hook drive he hit on the par-4 ninth hole.
But Mickelson hit a low screamer through a narrow gap, and the ball trickled into the left greenside bunker. He splashed out to five feet above the hole, and made the tricky downhill, right-to-left par putt. He'd equaled the Masters record with a front-nine 30.
But it couldn't last. Even playing his best, and with arguably the greatest player of all time — Mickelson has always maintained that playing with Tiger helps him focus — the fickle Phil seemed destined to do something screwy. On Sunday, it was the 9-iron into the drink on 12, the hole that jump-started Mickelson's run to his first green jacket in 2004. There was some discussion between Mickelson and caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay about how hard to hit the 9-iron, and at one point Mickelson said, "I got it." But he seemed to hit it heavy; he didn't have it.
"I just yanked it, just quit on it," Mickelson admitted, "and the ball went dead right."
Still, Phil flashed a last bit of magic. After getting a shot back with a birdie on the par-5 13th hole, he stung a 187-yard second shot to set up a four-foot eagle putt on 15. But the airtight game he used to conquer the front nine sprung another leak, as he shoved the eagle putt left, and tapped in for birdie to get back to 10-under, even par on the back.
A bogey out of the fairway bunker on 18 left him at nine under, one better than Tiger (and don't think that Phil doesn't know it).
The massive crowds on the grounds got what they came to see, the result notwithstanding. How will Tiger and Phil, these two incandescent talents, react to failure? Will they take Sunday as an indictment of their games, or a sign that they're on the right track?
"It is an incredibly demanding golf course," Riggs said, "and if you're not functioning on all cylinders, you're going to struggle to close the deal. It's not the Shell Houston Open or Bay Hill. It is tough to do. [Greg] Norman never won it. He was No. 1 in the world. We all get spoiled, thinking they're going to do it every year."
Clearly they're not. We know. But don't even pretend to look away as they try.