With Woods and Mickelson on their games, long-awaited Masters showdown could come this week

With Woods and Mickelson on their games, long-awaited Masters showdown could come this week

Mickelson has won the Masters twice in his career.
Simon Bruty/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Tuesday morning, Phil was chillin’. Literally. With the temperature hovering in the low 40s and a blustery wind making springtime in Augusta feel more like springtime in Buffalo, Phil Mickelson was among the hardy few who elected to tee it up for a practice round at Augusta National.

Mickelson played with Drew Kittleson, a Florida State sophomore who was runner up in last year’s U.S. Amateur. “I didn’t think it was that bad,” Mickelson said of the chill. “I was expecting it to be colder and windier.”

Things will warm up later in the week. For one thing, the weather forecast calls for afternoon temperatures in the mid-70s on Thursday. For another, there’s always a chance the public might get what it wants, a showdown between Mickelson and Tiger Woods, pretty much the only two players that evoke strong feelings among golf fans nowadays.

The old talk of a rivalry between the two has resurfaced for obvious reasons. Woods came back from a nine-month break after knee surgery to win at Bay Hill, where he holed yet another dramatic clutch putt on the final green for the win. See Page 74 of the Tiger Woods Highlight Manual, Volume 7, for full details. Mickelson bounced back from an off year when he wasn’t a factor in the majors by winning twice, at Riviera and Doral, and seems have to have regained some of his old swagger.

Mickelson, who confirmed that he just agreed to a five-year extension for his Callaway endorsement deal, says he’s playing some of the best golf of his life these days and that his short game is better than ever. Maybe it’s a subtle ploy to hype his new short-game video, but his recent results speak for themselves.

Phil is on a roll, and Tiger is coming off a win. They’ve never truly squared off at Augusta, although Mickelson and David Duval were pursuers in Tiger’s ’01 victory until they both messed up the 16th hole on Sunday, Phil left his tee shot above the hole and three-putted, and Duval airmailed the green with a 7-iron.

Forget about Phil’s missed cut last week in Houston. The first round featured winds up to 50 miles per hour that stopped play. As a high-ball hitter, playing in the wind isn’t considered one of his strengths. Missing the cut might have been a blessing in disguise, giving Mickelson two more days of serious Masters preparation.

“I’ve had some great practice here,” he said Tuesday. “I have a pretty good understanding of what I want to do with each shot. I know the greens and I look forward to this event. I’ve also been playing well.”

The fact is, modern golf isn’t conducive to creating on-course rivalries. The depth of fields works against two players going head-to-head on the final nine of a major. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had a tremendous rivalry and practically took turns winning the Masters in the early 1960s, but they never had a knockdown, drag-out, face-to-face battle at Augusta the way they did at the 1962 U.S. Open, when Nicklaus beat Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont.

It is well known that Tiger and Phil aren’t best friends, and while they’ve had a few skirmishes in other tournaments, notably Phil’s one-on-one win at the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship, they haven’t paired off enough to create a solid rivalry.

“Golf isn’t like tennis, where you have constant head-to-head matches,” Mickelson said. “You are always playing against the course and playing stroke play, except for one week a year at the Match Play. Certainly when we have matches in the Ryder Cup, it has been a point of contention because our emotions are so high that week. If it were in tennis, that rivalry would be a bigger factor than it is in golf, where we are not really playing against an individual as much as we are trying to shoot the lowest score and beat all the other players.”

The whole rivalry issue, Mickelson said, is a matter for the public and the press to talk about but not one that players give much thought to. “When I had success in a head-to-head match with Tiger at Boston a couple of years ago, it didn’t matter to me that we were playing together, per se,” Mickelson said. “I know it was made into a huge deal, but for me to perform well, I’ve got to attack the golf course and not worry about what he does. It’s not a match-play situation. It’s a stroke-play event, and for me to play my best, I can’t get caught up in that, nor can he.”

Mickelson has finished out of the top 12 only twice in the last 13 Masters. Besides two wins, he has four third-place finishes and is a cumulative 43 under par during that stretch. Woods has four wins, two seconds and a third in the same stretch and is 60 under par. It’s a course that suits both players. Just as Woods has clearly proven his superiority over his peers and staked his claim as the greatest player ever, Mickelson has for the most part solidified his spot as the second-best player of the Tiger era. That’s no small feat, although he’s never taken a money title or the world No. 1 ranking away from Tiger.

Mickelson would enjoy a chance to win another Masters, just as he’d enjoy the challenge of Woods being one of the contenders he’d have to beat. “I would love to be in the same group as him on Sunday, if we are in the final group,” Mickelson said. “I don’t want us to be third off.”

He waited for the writers’ laughter to fade before adding, “Hopefully, we will both play well. For that to happen, we have 54 holes where we have to play great golf. I don’t think that’s a question for him. He’s playing some great golf, and I think he’s going to be there. I think I’m playing some of the best golf of my career, and I believe I’m going to be there, too.”

The public would love that. So would CBS executives. So would the rest of the media. For now, the closest moment these titans of golf have shared on Sunday in Augusta was the awards ceremony. The first time Mickelson won the Masters, Canadian Mike Weir helped him slip on the green jacket. The second time, it was Woods. Asked which moment he preferred, Mickelson laughed.

“To get that jacket from Mike and keep it amongst lefthanders was cool,” he said, drawing more laughs. “But I do have a picture of him (Tiger) sliding that jacket on me. That felt good.”

Wishful thinking or not, it’s starting to feel warmer here already.