It would appear that the lovefest we saw between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson leading up to their head-to-head showdown in November is continuing into 2019. Ahead of the Genesis Open in Los Angeles, in which both are set to compete, the pair of golf titans and longtime rivals offered more compliments to each other.
On Wednesday, it was mostly Woods gushing over Mickelson, who is coming off a win at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and, at age 48, is swinging the club as well as ever. Of Mickelson’s success over the past two-plus decades, Woods told reporters (via pgatour.com), “It has always pushed me.”
“My entire career, Phil will probably attest to this, we’ve always looked at the board to figure out where one another’s at,” he added. “So we’ve always had that type of enjoyment of competing against one another.”
The younger, decidedly more arrogant Woods might not have made such an admission and, in fact, rarely said much of anything about the PGA Tour’s other crowd favorite, preferring to let his superior play — he had won eight majors before the older Mickelson finally broke through at the 2004 Masters — do the talking. For his part, Mickelson made headlines in 2003 for claiming that Woods was playing with “inferior equipment” and “hates that I can fly it past him now,” and they infamously made for a disastrous pairing at the 2004 Ryder Cup.
However, after struggling mightily to come back from persistent back problems, as well as some much-noted personal issues, before making a stirring return last year, the 42-year-old Woods has been more generous with his praise for opponents and open about his own shortcomings. In fact, Woods said Wednesday that he took inspiration from Mickelson’s victory in March 2018 at the World Golf Championship event in Mexico City, the left-handed player’s first win since the 2013 British Open.
“To see what he did last year in Mexico at 47 years old gave me confidence that I could somehow do it last year,” Woods said, “and I was able to finally end my season with a win.”
That win came in remarkable fashion, at least visually, as Woods led a swarm of jubilant fans up the 18th fairway Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club before sinking the final putt that earned him the Tour Championship in September. As with Mickelson, the victory was Woods’s first since 2013, but while he built up to that moment over the course of 2018, including a sixth-place finish at the British Open and a second-place finish at the PGA Championship, Mickelson had just one top-10 finish after his win and was a non-factor in all four majors.
However, starting with a win in their showdown, even if “The Match” was a desultory affair for the most part, Mickelson has been on a mini-tear, adding a second-place showing at January’s Desert Classic to his three-shot victory at Pebble. Mickelson told reporters at Riviera Country Club, site of the Genesis, that months of training in gyms and analyzing biometric swing studies had helped him improve his putting and increase his clubhead speed.
Woods made it clear he noticed, lauding Mickelson for his “extraordinary” success at improving his game. “Trust me, I recognize this. It’s not easy to pick up clubhead speed, which he has done as he’s gotten older,” Woods said (via ESPN).
“That’s what’s allowed him to stay out here with some of these longer guys; he’s been able to hit the ball farther,” the 14-time major winner continued. “ … He’s made more putts than I think I’ve seen in years in the last year and a half. It’s one of the reasons why he’s won two big events.”
Woods also used the word “extraordinary” to describe Mickelson’s ability to be “consistent for the length of time” that he has over 27 years and 44 wins on Tour. “He’s been out here since  and made every single team [Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup] since ’94. He’s won [five] major championships; he’s won events,” Woods said.
“He’s just been so consistent, and that’s the hardest thing to do. Each and every one of us have enough talent to have little hot runs out here, but to sustain it for two decades like he has ...”
Mickelson has certainly shown some consistency at Riviera, where has won twice and twice finished second in playoffs, but the same can’t be said for Woods. None of his 80 PGA wins, second only to Sam Snead’s 82, has come at the Tour event located closest to where Woods grew up in Southern California, and he said Wednesday that he had “a love-hate relationship” with the course.
“I enjoyed playing up here when I was young with my dad,” said Woods (via the AP), who began hosting the Genesis with his TGR Foundation in 2017. “For some reason, I’ve only played well here one time in the tournament [in 1999].”
To Mickelson, though, both he and his fellow 40-something have as good a shot as anybody at hoisting the trophy come Sunday. “Even today, if I play my best, if Tiger plays his best,” he said on Monday (via the Golf Channel), “it’s good enough to win on any week.”
“I just think that both myself and Tiger are going to have a really, really good year this year,” Mickelson added.
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