Tiger Woods was on the driving range Tuesday at the Masters after playing nine holes in a foursome that included Phil Mickelson when Rory McIlroy sidled up and made him laugh.
Yes, it was hardly practice as usual at Augusta National when Mickelson and Woods, the game’s great rivals who had circled each other like birds of prey for more than two decades, played nine holes together ahead of a major for the first time in their storied careers.
It was Mickelson’s idea, and Woods embraced it. “We enjoyed it,” Woods said.
This very public thawing of their relationship proved an irresistible attraction at Augusta National, where, strangely, birdsong is heard but birds are rarely seen. That’s what made the sight at the 13th hole doubly surreal. As Mickelson and Woods were playing the 510-yard par 5, a large crane strutted across the fairway.
The crane joined the huge gallery in time to see Woods hit his second shot to within 40 feet of the pin. The roar after Woods stepped up and sank the eagle putt was deafening. The crowd erupted again after he made a much shorter attempt for another eagle at 15. When the noise quieted to a loud murmur, one patron remarked, “It sounds like Sunday and it’s only a practice round.”
Mickelson and Woods beat the other half of the foursome, Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, and the Belgian Thomas Pieters, in a contest that wasn’t close. “It was very loud and very fun and they hit some real good shots,” Couples said. “Wow.”
Mickelson wore a long-sleeved, button-down shirt that inspired a joke from his playing partner. “The only thing that was missing was a tie,” Woods said.
Woods has gotten the better of Mickelson on the course many more times than not, but according to their peers, it is a tossup as to who is ahead in the war of wit.
“It’s pretty even,” said Jordan Spieth, who has heard them up close at Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups.
He added, “Tiger has more accolades than just about anybody in the sport — you know, nobody wants to go out there and just say, ‘I’ve won this or this or this or this,’ and Phil’s kind of better at getting under people’s skin.”
Woods, 42, is an introverted only child. Mickelson, five years his senior, is an extroverted firstborn with two siblings. The one important thing they have in common — a burning desire to win — is probably the primary factor behind their lack of closeness all these years. Remember: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer became fast friends only after they stopped banging heads on the golf course.
“Oh, man, he’s very, very, competitive,” Woods said of Mickelson. “He’s feisty. He’s determined. He always wants to win.”
Woods, of course, could have been describing the man in the mirror. Justin Thomas, whom Woods mentored while on the mend from multiple back surgeries, played a practice round with him on Monday. Thomas noted a change in Woods’ demeanor as they prepared to compete with each other. Woods, he said, was “a little harder to get stuff out of than when he was hurt and I was asking him questions.”
Mickelson has tour victories in four decades, but younger players like Thomas, the reigning PGA champion, almost universally looked up to Woods when they were growing up.
“He was winning about every other tournament he played in,” Thomas explained.
In some ways, though, Mickelson had the more auspicious start to his career, winning his first PGA Tour title when he was still an amateur. He has won 43 Tour titles, including five majors, while Woods has 79 tour wins, including 14 majors.
If Mickelson had not played in the same era as Woods, he might have “10 to 12 majors,” Couples said.
Mickelson isn’t so sure. “It’s very possible that that’s the case,” he said, “and it’s also possible that he brought out the best in me and forced me to work harder and focus to ultimately achieve the success that I’ve had.”
Six golfers in their 40s have won a Masters title. Led by Mickelson and Woods, at least a half-dozen here this week have a chance to become the seventh. The others include the 2007 champion, Zach Johnson, 42; Charley Hoffman, 41, who led after the first two rounds last year; Paul Casey, 40, who has top-six finishes in each of the past three years; and Ian Poulter, 42, who secured the final berth with a playoff victory Sunday in Houston.
After Mickelson won the World Golf Championships event in Mexico City last month in a playoff against Thomas, Woods described Mickelson’s first victory since 2013 as “very, very cool to watch.”
Woods tied for second a week later at the Valspar Championship outside Tampa, Florida, and Mickelson said he sent Woods a text message after he played his way into contention. Mickelson said he had told Woods that it felt “like it was a different time continuum, because I found myself pulling so hard for him.”
This week they are less rivals than two men united against Father Time, a much more formidable opponent than Couples and Pieters combined.
“I find that I want him to play well,” Mickelson said, “and I’m excited to see him play so well.”
At the start of the practice round, Woods teed off first. Someone asked how the group had decided who got that honor. An impish smile creased Mickelson’s face.
“We just went right in order,” he said. “He has four jackets, I have three jackets, Fred, then Thomas.”
Mickelson winked. “It’s a respect thing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
KAREN CROUSE © 2018 The New York Times