Woods Arrives to The Players Championship
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The pre-tournament barbs were flying Tuesday between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
All were good-natured and figure to continue Thursday and Friday, when they get a rare pairing in the first two rounds of the 45th Players Championship at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Mickelson was the instigator, suggesting they skip tournament golf and stage a high-stakes, head-to-head, winner-take-all match.
“Now, I don’t know if he wants a piece of me, but I just think it would be something that would be really fun for us to do,” the 47-year-old Mickelson said.
Asked about the idea, the 42-year-old Woods smiled wryly.
“Well first of all, big picture,” he said. “How many times have we both won on Tour?”
Woods has 79 victories, second all-time to Sam Snead (82), including 14 major championships. Mickelson has collected 43 and five majors.
“I’m definitely not against that,” said Woods. “We’ll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable.”
Fiercely competitive for more than 20 years on the PGA Tour, Woods and Mickelson are friendly and share mutual respect.
“Phil and I have great banter,” Woods said. “We give each other the needle. We always have. But I think our relationship has certainly gotten a lot closer with me being a (Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup) vice-captain the last couple teams, sitting there and having lengthy conversations with him about things. Not just the pairings, but just about things in general.”
Woods and Mickelson have played together 36 times in 25 events, with each beating the other on 16 occasions and four ending in ties. Woods won seven of those events, Mickelson two, with Tiger holding a 69.66 to 69.88 scoring edge.
At the 2001 Players Championship, they were paired in the third round and Woods went on to win, sinking an improbable 60-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th hole. Tiger bagged the Masters two weeks later to lay claim to all four majors at the same time.
“It was the most remarkable golf in the history of the game, and I think unrepeatable,” said Mickelson. “I look at 2000 as being kind of the benchmark and the U.S. Open as being the greatest golf I’ve ever witnessed and I believe has ever been played.”
During that stretch, Woods won 12 of 24 tournaments worldwide. And it wasn’t fun for Mickelson.
“It sucked to play against him,” he said. “It really did. You look at it, and you say, how are you going to – how am I going to beat this? There was a stretch there of a number of years that it was so impressive that it was hard to imagine that it was actually happening, that he was hitting some of the shots that he was hitting and playing that well.”
Although Mickelson fully appreciates the talent of today’s young players, including Rickie Fowler, who will join the threesome on Thursday and Friday, most have no idea what it was like trying to beat Woods.
“The guys today look back, and they say, come on, how much better could he have been and so forth, and it just goes to show you that they weren’t there to witness it,” said Mickelson.
For the record, Woods prevailed 14 times in 2000 and 2001. At age 24, he won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record-smashing 15 strokes, then captured the Open Championship at St. Andrews by eight with a new standard 19-under-par winning total to become the youngest winner of the career Grand Slam.
Woods compared his rivalry with Mickelson to that of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Whenever they entered the same event, both watched the scoreboard to see where the other stood.
Mickelson has played well this year, winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in March in a playoff against Justin Thomas, his first PGA Tour victory since 2013. Woods has returned to the game after missing most of the last two years because of four back surgeries and has already posted two top-five finishes, including a tie for second at the Vaspar Championship.
“I think it’s going to be fun playing with him again,” said Woods. “It’s always been a blast. He’s one hell of a competitor and it’s always going to be a challenge to try and beat him.”
Woods begins play on Thursday at 1:52 p.m. ET on the first tee. On Friday, he starts at 8:27 a.m. ET on the 10th tee.