AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Walking past Tiger Woods on the practice tee early Tuesday afternoon, Rory McIlroy couldn’t resist saying what so many had been thinking.
“I never thought I would see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta,” McIlroy said.
But there they were, Woods and Mickelson playing a nine-hole practice round/match with/against Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters on the back nine at Augusta National on a Tuesday morning that felt more than a little bit like a Sunday afternoon.
As if the run-up to this Masters needed any more adrenaline, it was provided by the Woods-Mickelson pairing if only because it seemed as unlikely as Mickelson playing in a long-sleeved dress shirt with French cuffs.
“The only thing that was missing was a tie,” Woods said.
“I have a necktie,” Mickelson deadpanned. “I’ll wear it tonight (to the Champions Dinner).”
For years they’ve been rivals and their relationship has been more frosty than warm. But Mickelson is 47 now, Woods is 42 and the ticking of the clock has softened the edges. Woods seems like a changed man this time around, warmer and more engaging, like someone who realized what he was missing when he was away.
This pairing may not have happened had Woods and Mickelson not bumped into each other checking in on Monday. Neither had a Tuesday game booked so they booked an 8:30 a.m. time off the 10th tee.
When they got to the tee, there was a question of who had the honor.
“Four, three, one, zero,” Mickelson said, counting off the number of Masters each player in the group had won, giving Woods the honor.
And so it went.
Woods and Mickelson were tremendous together, playing a five-hole stretch in 7-under par thanks to eagles at the 13th and 15th holes by Tiger, reconfirming the legitimacy of his chances this week and extracting a payoff from Pieters and Couples.
“It was good because it was an appearance fee,” Woods cracked.
Other than playing practice rounds together at Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, neither Woods nor Mickelson could recall the last time they paired up pre-tournament at a stroke-play event. It may have been 20 years ago at Riviera Country Club but neither could say for certain.
Standing together behind the 15th green, Woods and Mickelson compared notes on how to save shots from the awkward spot. Mickelson demonstrated one flop shot then another, holing the more difficult one.
“Just silly,” is how Woods described it.
It didn’t feel nor look like a typical Tuesday. Each hole was lined tee to green by the gallery, often five and six deep. As the group played the 17th hole, they could glance up the hill toward No. 18 and see what looked like a sea of spectators tucked in like it was the final hole of the championship, not the end of a nine-hole practice session.
“It seemed like there were a lot of people out there,” Mickelson said with a smirk.
Almost 18 months ago in the Bahamas, Woods acknowledged the severity of his back problems and questioned whether he would play competitively again, saying whatever happened from there would be gravy on his career.
He tried to play in the past two Masters but couldn’t because of the pain in his back and leg, nerve damage severe enough that it occasionally would cause him to fall down. Sitting through the Champions Dinner last year, Woods said, was particularly painful.
“In hindsight, it was a pipe dream,” Woods said of his failed attempts to return. “My back was fried.”
Now he calls himself a walking miracle. The pain is gone. The power has returned. So have the possibilities.
“To see him back out playing is incredible. We all feel that,” Mickelson said. “I texted him a while ago 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. 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.”