PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Having stared career mortality in the face, Tiger Woods is grateful for every second of life in pro golf. That includes actually enjoying two full days in the company of Phil Mickelson.
The two old nemeses, who were said to have not been not all that fond of each other during their heyday, will be in the same group, along with Rickie Fowler, here at The Players Thursday and Friday. And both are genuinely thrilled about it.
So much so that Mickelson said on Tuesday morning, “Why don’t we just bypass all the ancillary stuff and just go head-to-head and have kind of a high-stakes, winner-take-all match?”
To which Woods replied, during his news conference later, “I’m definitely not against that. We’ll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable.”
Only kidding. They recognize that this is one of the biggest events of the season, and there is plenty at stake as it is. Each man is optimistic enough to think he can contend. Each is also realistic enough to know that golf lives are too short to carry grudges. So, they appreciate each other and embrace the chance to still be playing high-level golf together.
“It’s been a blast and he’s one hell of a competitor, and it has always going to be a challenge to try and beat him,” Woods, 42, said of Mickelson, 47. “We have always looked and said, ‘Where is he on the board?’ That’s what Arnold and Jack used to do all the time.”
In a way they were the Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of their generation, but not quite. Woods was in a class by himself. The last time they played together in this event, 17 years ago, Woods was in the midst of winning four consecutive majors.
“It was the most remarkable golf in the history of the game, and I think unrepeatable. I think it was that good,” Mickelson said. “I look at 2000, at the U.S. Open, as being the greatest golf I’ve ever witnessed and I believe that ever has been played. And it (stunk) to have to play against him. It really did.”
Everything is different now for Woods, of course. His back was so bad a year ago he often could not get out of bed and barely could walk. Spinal fusion surgery gave him a Mulligan and a fresh outlook. “I wouldn’t say it’s gravy, but it’s unbelievable, and I’m just so thankful to be able to have this opportunity again,” he said. “Trust me, I’m fully aware of how special this is for me.”
He pointed out that among the most supportive people during his struggles was the lefthanded golfer with whom he has not played a competitive round since the 2014 PGA, with whom he has played only 35 tournament rounds (average scores: Woods 69.6, Mickelson 69.9). They will have plenty of company on the grounds here
“The good thing about playing with them,” said Masters champion Patrick Reed, who played with Woods last week and will be two groups ahead this week, “is if you don’t feel too comfortable over the driver, you have people to stop that golf ball for you before it goes out of bounds.”