One player arrived at the Masters like a meteorite, while the other took a slow freight train that eventually led to the green jacket. In almost every way, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are as opposite as right and left.
But here we are at the start of the 71st Masters, and it’s all about the above. Tiger is the heaviest of favorites as he goes for his third consecutive major championship. Phil is his chief challenger as he attempts to join Jack Nicklaus as the only players ever to win three Masters in a four-year span.
What’s peculiar about the pre-tournament hype emanating out of austere Augusta National is how complimentary golf’s dynamic duo have been toward each other this week.
Among the carefully chosen words from Woods to describe Mickelson are such positives as “brilliant’’ and “confident.’’ And Mickelson has countered by conceding that Woods is “incredible,’’ and “most likely the best player the game has ever seen.’’
All of which makes one wonder if Tiger and Phil are possibly losing some of that mistrust for each other. Either that, or the rivalry is maturing, much like it mellowed over the years between Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Personally, it looks to me like the perfect storm for someone else to sneak in and grab that outdated green garment that has gone to Woods and Mickelson in five of the past six years.
The supporting cast certainly is strong for being forgotten, with the likes of Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Charles Howell III waiting in the wings.
Who knows? Maybe an aging veteran like Chris DiMarco or Mark Calcavecchia has a shot. Just keep in mind the old adage: “You don’t win the Masters, the Masters wins you.’’
Still, judging from what has been written lately, we arrive at Woods winning his fifth Masters in a landslide. Such a feat would move the world’s No. 1 player past Palmer on the tournament’s all-time list, just one behind Nicklaus’ record of six.
Not everyone is buying it. Especially Tiger, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his record romp in 1997, when he broke the 72-hole record (18-under par) as well as margin of victory (12 strokes).
“No,’’ he said flatly when asked about another possible Tiger Slam like the one he put together in 2000-01. “My whole preparation is getting the ball in play, putting the ball on the correct parts of the green, and getting the speed of these things.’’
Mickelson, who needed 46 tries before he won his first major (2004 Masters), gets a kick out of the media’s attempt to make a rivalry between he and Woods. But Mickelson, too, sees a bigger picture.
“It’s a course that I feel very good on, but so does Tiger,’’ said Mickelson, who again is planning a two-driver strategy, the bomber club being the new square-headed version from Callaway.
“I think the Masters tests your game better than any major — your full game. … In that regard, anybody can win.’’
Well, perhaps not just “anybody,’’ but the list of candidates certainly is larger than two. After all, Mike Weir won here as a long shot in 2003, and Mark O’Meara did the same in 1998.
Or how about Larry Mize, the Augusta native who shocked the golf world by chipping in on the second playoff hole to defeat Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman in the 1987 Masters? That 20th anniversary certainly isn’t lost on the Augusta-born Howell, even if he also points directly to Woods and Mickelson.
“They come into the majors having won a lot,’’ Howell said of Woods’ 12 majors and Mickelson’s three. “The wealth of confidence that breeds is big, and on top of that, I think they have probably the two best short games in golf.
“Major championships, especially this place, are so demanding around the green, and on the green. You look at those two guys, and they obviously are the best two in the world at it.’’
So the stage is set, and it’s all about Tiger, and to a lesser degree, Phil. Just don’t be surprised if one of those unsung players ends up singing a better version of “Amen Corner.’’