Skip to main content
Original Issue

Grudge Match

JUNE 15-18,2006



At a long agoMasters, when Tiger Woods was just an intriguing amateur prospect and PhilMickelson a hotshot young pro who was being billed as the Next Nicklaus, Woodssneaked an SI reporter into the Crow's Nest, the tiny dormitory perched atopthe Augusta National clubhouse. Tiger was monitoring the Masters telecast whenMickelson flashed onto the screen. Employing a putting stroke that was much toolong and loose for the slippery greens, Mickelson characteristically charged aputt past the hole. As the ball trickled farther and farther from the cup,Woods offered only one word of commentary: "Roll."

The antipathy was born on the playing fields of junior golf. Tiger and Philgrew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 milesbut linked by their talent--both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by5 1/2 years, Mickelson loomed over Woods's early golfing life. "Phil was anicon to us," says one of Tiger's friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, nowin his eighth year on the PGA Tour.

Woods's father, Earl, received most of the credit for his son's competitivespirit, but it was his mom, Tida, who sharpened Tiger's killer instinct. Withher it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger wasconsidered not just a competitor but also a threat. So as Woods chasedMickelson's numerous junior records in the 1980s, he was imbued with a certaindisdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.

All these yearslater Tiger and Phil are once again measuring themselves against each other.After fans pined for almost a decade, a bona fide rival for Woods has finallyemerged, and it turns out to be the same guy Tiger pursued, and surpassed, longago. Now that Mickelson has raised his game to Woods's level, the dynamics oftheir complicated relationship have changed yet again. To say Phil and Tigerdon't like each other misses all the nuance. Theirs is akin to a siblingrivalry, replete with name-calling and childish feuds, but ultimately eachknows that he is stuck with the other and they're better off just trying to getalong. Especially these days. After all the talk about a Big Five--Woods,Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen--golf's plotlines have beensimplified. Only two players matter now. Woods, 30, and Mickelson, 35, are thebiggest talents and most compelling personalities, and at last they have thechance to push their sport to new heights.

Next week Tigerand Phil will storm New York for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club insuburban Mamaroneck. Expect the same kind of hysteria that greeted King Kong ashe lumbered toward the Empire State Building. "The sport has always neededsuperstars competing against each other in its biggest events--from Snead andHogan to Jack and Arnold," says Tour sage Jeff Sluman, a 24-year veteran."Right now, with Tiger and Phil, this is fantastic stuff. It would beawesome to see those two guys going at it down the stretch at Winged Foot. Ithink the golf world would relish that."

What makes apotential showdown at Winged Foot even more intriguing is that the last Open tobe played in the shadow of Gotham, at Bethpage in 2002, was a definingtournament for both players. Woods's win put the finishing touches on one ofthe most dominant stretches in sports history--it was his seventh majorchampionship in 11 tries. Mickelson fought gamely at Bethpage, but as had beenhis habit, he blew it in the end, bogeying the 16th and 17th holes on Sunday tofinish second by three strokes, to that point his 16th top 10 in a majorwithout a victory.

The '02 Openlaunched Mickelson's cult of personality, as the raucous crowds embraced him ina lovefest that had as much to do with fatigue with Woods's dominance asMickelson's virtues. Mickelson was jazzed by the reception but not content tosettle for being a lovable loser. Bethpage finally crystallized for him thathis freewheeling, go-for-broke game was not good enough against Woods'sruthless efficiency. "I need to lower the score that I set [as apretournament goal]," Mickelson said following his final-round 70, whichleft him even par for the tournament. "Heading in, I thought even par wouldbe an incredible score for four rounds. I was able to accomplish that. I haveto lower that number if I'm going to win tournaments with Tiger in the field.I'm starting to realize that, and I've got to continue to work harder in allareas of my game to compete at the highest level."

Now, having wonthree of the last nine majors, Mickelson has flipped the script on Woods. Justas they have passed the green jacket back and forth at the last threeMasters--recalling the glory years when Nicklaus and Palmer combined to winfive straight, from 1962 to '66--Phil and Tiger seem to have swappedpersonas.

By the time hearrives at Winged Foot, Woods will have played only one tournament in thepreceding 11 weeks as he has dealt with the death of his father on May 3.Tiger's once unimpeachable game now comes accompanied by a murmur of concern:Where's his head? Will he be able to find the narrow fairways? Can he fix hisputting stroke after a disastrous display at Augusta?

As he goes forhis third consecutive major championship, Mickelson is now drawing comparisonswith Nick Faldo, not Evel Knievel. Though Phil remains No. 2 behind Tiger inthe World Ranking, for the first time since junior golf you can make the casewith a straight face that Mickelson is the more complete player, and surely therabbit-eared Woods has detected the shifting public opinion. Jim Furyk is oneof the few players close to both Mickelson and Woods, and of Tiger he says,"I believe that because of his competitiveness, the challenge of someoneelse playing really well is, let's just say, helpful in motivatinghim."

More strikingthan their on-course evolution is the changing perception of both men.Beginning with the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, which Mickelson lost on thefinal green while his wife, Amy, was close to delivering their first child2,200 miles away, Phil had largely defined himself as golf's most high-profilefamily guy. It was almost as if Mickelson had decided that if he couldn't gethis hands on any important trophies, he would squeeze his wife and kids thatmuch closer. Every time he interrupted his U.S. Open preparation to throw abirthday party for daughter Amanda--as in 2001, when on the evening before thetournament began he rounded up a life-sized Barney, a bubble machine and afleet of ponies in Tulsa--it was fodder for questions about his commitment,especially when the single-minded (and single) Woods was working so hard to diggolf's secrets out of the dirt. (And as Tiger was sculpting his body into theshape of a martini glass, Phil blamed his ever-present paunch on his"subcutaneous fat" while also coming up with the excuse that "TVadds 20 pounds.") Mickelson also began getting a rep as a dilettante thanksto his very public sports wagering and an August 2003 cameo with the Mud Hensin Toledo, where his batting-practice heater was clocked at 67 mph.

Now the backstoryto Phil's success in the majors is his obsessive preparation. Mickelson neverseemed more focused or businesslike than at this year's Masters, and in thewake of his victory he dropped out of sight to begin gearing up for the U.S.Open, turning down Letterman and Leno and numerous other chances to gloat."We're supposed to act like we've been here before," said a member ofMickelson's inner circle.

Woods, of course,built a fortress around himself long ago. "Let's face it, a wife cansometimes be a deterrent to a good game of golf," Earl famously said in2001, pretty much explaining the lone-wolf ethos that defined the early partsof his son's career. Then along came a Swedish bikini model. (In theblonde-babe category, that put Tiger 1 up on Phil, who had merely snagged aformer Phoenix Suns cheerleader.) While Mickelson has increasingly focused onimproving his game, Woods's life has become an ever more public spectacle.Paparazzi pictures from his October 2004 wedding were splashed around theworld. He made headlines again last December when he plunked down $38 millionfor an estate on Jupiter Island, Fla. And at a couple of press conferences thisyear Woods has gotten all gooey talking about his new border collie, Taz, agift from his bride last Christmas.

TheMickelsonization of Woods became complete this spring. After his unevenperformance at the Masters you might have expected Tiger to spend 10 hours aday practicing his putting. Instead, the week after Augusta he buzzed intoVegas, where the press reported that he won more than $500,000 playingblackjack. (Woods hasn't commented.) Then it was off to New Zealand to serve asbest man at the wedding of his caddie, Steve Williams. Woods's excellent Kiwiadventure included a 440-foot bungee jump and trading paint in a dirt-tracksaloon-car race. What will Tiger do next?

It was shortlyafter Woods returned from New Zealand that his father succumbed to cancer.Tiger has never seemed more raw or real than in the last year, as he opened upabout Earl. His caddie didn't carry a beeper at the Masters, but Woods playedknowing that at any moment he might receive the dreaded call from Californiaregarding Pop. Now, heading into a U.S. Open that concludes on Father's Day, heis surely hoping to win in Earl's memory. there has always been a pronouncedschism in the golf world; you are either a Phil fan or a Tiger fan. Mickelson'sbase seems to be mostly soccer moms and couch potatoes--casual fans who havebeen charmed by his goofy perma-grin and Mayberry-inflected image and whoappreciate his aggressive style, or what's left of it. To them the coldperfectionist Woods is little more than a flesh-and-blood Iron Byron. Tiger'scrowd skews toward alpha males and single-digit handicappers--hard-core fanswho can wax about the evolution of his swing and are not put off by his liberalon-course use of the f word. In their eyes Mickelson is a loafer who wastedmore than a decade coasting on his prodigious talent and whose aw-shucks act isphony to the point of inducing mild nausea. (Include GQ in the Woods camp; thisyear the magazine had Mickelson No. 8 on its Ten Most Hated Athletes list.)

As in any aspectof American life it is necessary to at least acknowledge the issue of race.There is no doubt that in the Mickelson-Woods polarity some people root forPhil because he is white and some root for Tiger because he is not. But it'shard to get worked up on the topic since Woods has so cautiously positionedhimself in the mainstream with an Orange County conservatism that permeates hisdress, his manner and his politics. Don't forget, Tiger could have paid anyband in the world to play at his $1.5 million Caribbean wedding, but he choseHootie and the Blowfish. It doesn't get any more white-bread than that.

That they arousesuch strong passions in their supporters is, as is often said, good for golf.Woods may be sparing in his praise of Mickelson, but he is not oblivious to thebox office considerations of finally having a compelling rival. Beginning in1999 Woods began playing a series of tedious prime-time exhibitions in a doomedattempt to manufacture some heat with lightweights such as David Duval andSergio García. It wasn't until the fifth incarnation of the exhibitions thatWoods finally invited Mickelson.

Tiger and Philhave done this little dance throughout their pro careers. It has always irkedWoods that Mickelson, practically alone among top U.S. players, routinely blowsoff the Target World Challenge, Woods's off-season charity tournament. Tigergot a measure of payback in 2002 when he elected not to play in his fourthconsecutive World Cup of Golf after a change in the selection process wouldhave forced him to be paired with Phil. These disses have always been subtleenough to allow for the proper deniability, but the bad blood began to gopublic in February 2003, when Mickelson woofed to Golf Magazine, "In mymind, Tiger and I don't have issues between us. Well, maybe one. He hates thatI can fly it past him now [off the tee]. He has a faster swing speed than I do,but he has inferior equipment."

Mickelson wasbarbecued in the press for being so uppity, given that at the time Woods ledhim 8--0 in major championship victories. Tiger relished every second of thebacklash. "That was just Phil being Phil," he said. "He was tryingto be a smart aleck, and in this case it didn't work." The funny thingabout this episode is that in a sense Mickelson was right about Woods'sequipment. With his obsession for distance Phil has always been an earlyadapter of new technologies, but as late as 2004 Tiger was playing athrottled-back ball and a driver with a shorter shaft and smaller head comparedwith the competition's, costing him a lot of yards off the tee but in his mindgiving him greater precision. Now, while Mickelson is reining in his game,Woods has belatedly joined the space race, using cutting-edge gear to send hisdrives to uncharted territories, sometimes even in the fairway.

The distancebetween Woods and Mickelson became international news at the 2004 Ryder Cup,when, after being paired in a surprise move by U.S. captain Hal Sutton, theyexhibited zero chemistry while getting skunked in two matches on the openingday, setting the tone for the U.S.'s lifeless defeat. The lasting image fromtheir lost day was Tiger's withering glare at his partner after Phil blew adrive almost off the property on the 18th hole in an alternate-shot match thatwas all square. That one look said more than a lifetime of carefully chosensound bites, and it set the stage for the most ballyhooed Ping-Pong game thisside of Forrest Gump. At last year's Presidents Cup, Mickelson and Woods made apoint of taking each other on in an early-week grudge match in the team room.Regardless of how scripted this show of solidarity was, it did wonders for theU.S. squad's camaraderie. "It was so much fun to watch that," saysSluman, who was an assistant captain for the American team. "It was a lotof hootin' and hollerin' and trash-talking. They were both perspiring profuselywhen it was over. Everyone heard the screaming and yelling and started stickingtheir heads in, and then sitting down and watching. It was great stuff. It madefor a special start to the week." For the record, Woods won two out ofthree.

The PresidentsCup was not the first meeting of the minds between Tiger and Phil. In 1999,despite harsh criticism, they stood together in an ultimately successfulattempt to get the PGA of America to allow players to distribute to charitysome of the Ryder Cup windfall. Woods is rightfully celebrated as a shrewdbusinessman, but Mickelson, a stock market maven, also likes to follow themoney. In '99, near the end of the first season played under a monster TVcontract negotiated shortly after Woods's game-changing win at the 1997Masters, Phil pulled Tiger aside and thanked him for his role in jacking uppurses. Woods was blown away, saying, "No one had ever said anything likethat to me."

Mickelson isaware that Woods has enhanced more than his pocketbook. Phil has alwaysacknowledged that trying to close the gap on Tiger inspired him to work harderto realize his own potential. Now he knows that Woods is the key to his legacy.One of Mickelson's favorite new refrains goes like this: "If Tiger is thebest player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that makeme?" In the last 12 tournaments in which both were in the field, Mickelsonhas finished ahead of Woods in five and they tied in another.

It is worthnoting that Mickelson's three major championships have all come at tournamentsin which Woods was not a factor. That doesn't devalue the wins, but it doeswhet the appetite for a shootout when the stakes are the highest. At WingedFoot all eyes will be on Tiger and Phil. Rest assured, those two will bekeeping track of each other, just as they always have.

Follow every round of the 106th U.S. Open with Seth Davis's blog


10  |  3

48  |  29

2  |  2

69.62  |  69.34

300.6  |  299.6

$58.3M  |  $38.7M