AUGUSTA (AFP) – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, fierce 40-something rivals and seldom practice partners, toured Augusta National together on Tuesday in a show-stopping surprise attraction two days before the start of the 82nd Masters.
Woods eagled the par-5 13th and 15th holes and Mickelson made five birdies in a row starting at 13 in what was believed to be their first practice round together outside team events since the 1988 PGA Los Angeles Open.
“I do find him very enjoyable to be around. We had a great time playing together and I hope we have a chance to do it more,” Mickelson said.
“We laugh, we tell stories, we’re both self-deprecating and yet we can both throw in a little jab here and there. And we just have fun together.”
Woods and Mickelson showed fist-bumping friendship on a course where they have battled for decades over green jackets, Woods taking four and Mickelson three.
“We’ve competed a lot of times coming down the stretch. We were joking about some of the thoughts that transpired here,” Woods said. “We’ve gone through it the better part of 20 years. Our friendship has certainly gotten a lot better.
“And I think it’s just age as well. He’s 47 and I’m 42 and we’ve had a great 20-year battle. Hopefully we’ll have a few more. We understand where we are versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who’s going to be number one.”
The most epic Woods-Mickelson memory was at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills when Hall Sutton paired the world’s two top-ranked players and they lost twice to European rivals, a Woods death stare at “Lefty” after an errant tee shot into deep woods saying all that was needed.
Until now. Until the bromance. Philger? Woodselson? Mickelwoods!
“We partnered up and had some fun,” Mickelson said. “There were a lot of people out there. They seemed pretty excited.”
Count four-time major winner Rory McIlroy among them.
“Tiger and Phil seem like they’ve got a great relationship now and it’s great to see,” McIlroy said. “They’ve obviously become very close.”
Mickelson would pass Jack Nicklaus at 46 in 1986 as the oldest Masters winner. Mickelson ended a win drought stretching since the 2013 British Open at the WGC Mexico event last month.
“It’s hard for me to believe,” Mickelson said. “To think I’m this age, time just flies by.”
Woods, known for a fan-ignoring focus in his glory days, and Mickelson, a fan favourite, bonded over the US Ryder Cup team after a 2014 loss at Gleneagles.
“We’ve always had a respect and an appreciation for each other but I believe coming together to work together for a common goal of having success in the Ryder Cup has brought us closer,” Mickelson said.
“We were talking almost on a daily basis and that was the impetus where we really started to work well together.”
Woods said Mickelson was there for him during the past two years of back pain.
“When I got hurt and I had to take a different role, Phil was great. He was trying to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback – and our friendship has gotten stronger over the years.”
Mickelson has seen Woods, second at Valspar and fifth at Bay Hill last month in his injury fightback, boost golf’s payouts and popularity.
“Nobody respects and appreciates what he has done for the game more because nobody’s benefited from what he’s done more than I have,” Mickelson said. “To see him back out playing is incredible.
“When he was going through a tough time I wanted to help out, because often times that’s when people aren’t there.”
Now Mickelson has Tigermania.
“I texted him when he was playing at Valspar that it felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him,” Mickelson said. “It was unusual. I find that I want him to play well and I’m excited to see him play so well. And he is playing well.”
Mickelson said Woods might have denied him more major titles but also might have helped inspired the wins he has.
“It has been tough dealing with as much failure against him as I’ve had,” he admitted. “It’s also possible he brought out the best in me and forced me to work harder and focus to ultimately achieve the success I’ve had.”