Neither Phil Mickelson nor Tiger Woods won the Masters, but their epic final-round match won't be forgotten

Neither Phil Mickelson nor Tiger Woods won the Masters, but their epic final-round match won’t be forgotten

Through 24 rounds, it's Woods 11, Mickelson 9 with 4 ties.
John Biever/SI

What were the chances? What were the odds that Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world, and Phil Mickelson, Tiger’s wildly entertaining Salieri, would both wind up in the same twosome, with the same score as they began a gorgeous Sunday afternoon with the course playing just soft enough that making up seven shots was in the realm of the possible?

Think about it: Phil has Tiger’s old coach, Butch Harmon, working with him these days. Butch had Phil nice and loose as he went through a beautiful warmup session on Masters Sunday.

Harmon took in Ian Poulter’s all-white getup and said, “If I dressed like that, people would be looking to buy ice cream from me.” Tiger, in his warmup, hit a series of hooks and pushes, and his teacher, Hank Haney, was looking particularly grim before the 1st hole was done.

There was enough subtext in this pairing to make Sigmund Freud reexamine his theories. In 2003 Phil said in an interview that Tiger was playing with “inferior equipment” and that Tiger “hates it that I can fly it past him now.” In December 2008 Tiger’s caddie, Steve Williams, retaliated, in a manner of speaking: He described Phil to a reporter in New Zealand as “a prick.” Yeah, sure, this is all pretty tame by the lofty standards of NBA trash talk. Still, Tiger’s “Stevie” was on his best behavior on Sunday at Augusta.

To cite just two examples: On 8, Williams returned the flagstick to the hole, even though Phil was the last to hole out. On 9, after Phil played his third shot out of a greenside bunker, leaving his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, with a rake job, Williams cleaned Phil’s ball without giving it the country-club spit, just a nice spiffy wipe with a moist towel. Very classy.

As for Steve’s boss, you have to say, once more with feeling, that the man is amazing. Tiger’s tee shot on the 1st hole was yanked way left, about 100 yards off-line. Still, he made par. He hit some other shots that were nearly as heinous. Still, he shot a four-under 68. He could have shot 78. Remember when he played Torrey Pines on one leg? This was about the same thing, except on Sunday at Augusta he was hobbled by his swing.

On 15, desperate for an eagle on the par-5, he hit a little baby cut shot off the tee, more desperate to find something that would finish in the fairway. Phil hit a big, high, hard draw shot that ended up at least 15 yards past Tiger’s ball.

They would never admit it publicly, but Tiger and Phil were playing for two things on Sunday at Augusta. In the big picture Tiger was looking for his fifth green jacket, Phil his third. In the little picture they were playing for bragging rights of the highest order.

Phil and Tiger are not Arnie and Jack. Nothing like it. Yes, they are respectful and cordial to each other. They’re pros’ pros. They like playing with each other in competition. Each year they sit at the same long table at the champions dinner, on Tuesday of Masters week. But they never play practice rounds together. They never play in team competitions together, at least not voluntarily. Tiger doesn’t envy Phil’s easy charm, and Phil doesn’t envy Tiger’s extraordinary discipline. (In the case of Nicklaus and Palmer, each craved what the other had.) Tiger is forever taking names and prisoners and hides. He wants to own pieces of every player who has a chance to beat him.

Let’s say Tiger had shot 67 on Sunday and Phil 77. Now let’s jump to the Phil-Tiger Monday playoff to decide the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. Would Tiger dig deep and conjure up the results from Sunday 2009 at Augusta? You bet! For Fred Couples, for Davis Love III, for Ernie Els, for Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen and even Vijay Singh, such thinking is foreign. But Phil understands Tiger’s eat-or-be-eaten M.O. On Sunday he needed to beat Tiger as much as Tiger needed to beat him. With a front-nine 30, and despite a bunch of missed short putts on the back nine plus a hideous, waterlogged double-bogey 5 on 12, Phil nipped Tiger by a shot, 67 to 68. Does it get you a medal? In a manner of speaking, it does.

Still, Tiger’s the man. His face, late on Sunday, when his week was over and Cabrera & Co. were still going at it, told more than his few words, and his few words said everything. Here he was, rich as Croesus, with a beautiful wife and two healthy children, on a lovely spring afternoon, and he was seething. He was sweating. His eyes were watery and tired. He was disgusted. He said of his round, “It was just terrible. I don’t know what was going on.” Sixty-eight.

Watch this man, this Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, as closely as you can for as long as you can. There will never be another one like him. He took off his shoes and slipped into sneakers, and got out of Dodge as fast as he could.

His worthy adversary, maestro Mickelson, with his bright eyes and his dimples and his accessible caddie, who called the Sunday round “the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course,” was in no rush to leave, even if he was not going to the members’ Sunday-night dinner for the new winner. Yes, a simple back nine — seven pars and two birdies on the short par-5s — would have earned him a spot in the playoff, but what the hell. He’s done a lot in the game, and he’ll do more.

He sat in the Masters Club Room reserved for past champions, ate a burger, called his three kids (recovering from various maladies) at home in suburban San Diego, watched the playoff on TV and, when it was all over, made a leisurely departure. “I had the time of my life out there,” Phil said. “Would I like to have shot a 33 on the back nine? Sure. But it was a great day.”

Of course it was. He won.