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By defying the odds, Phil and Tiger maintained their grip on golf, and on us

Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods before the 2018 Masters. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
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Phil Mickelson’s victory over the weekend at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and Tiger Woods’s win at Augusta National in 2019 are such singular, separate accomplishments — different golfers who overcame different obstacles on vastly different golf courses. Yet when Mickelson won the PGA Championship on Sunday, becoming the oldest player to win a major, didn’t the mind drift easily back to Woods at the Masters two years earlier?

Which was more remarkable? Which was more surprising? Could either pull off anything like it again?

“Truly inspirational to see @PhilMickelson do it again at 50 years of age,” Woods tweeted Sunday night. “Congrats!!!!!!”

They are still, after all this time — even when one is absent, as Woods was last week — golf’s best twosome. They are still, after all this time, golf’s leading men. Now, each has an unlikely renaissance victory that both deepened a legacy and added intrigue about what was still possible.

That the sport’s most important and compelling figures are 50 and 45 would seem to portend an iffy future. That’s another discussion. What Mickelson and Woods have done for decades — what they continue to do in middle age — is lift the sport from niche to mainstream on any given weekend. They’re the only pair that can do it.

Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship at 50. Why not the U.S. Open at 51?

Golf nerds (looks in mirror) know the entire field, from Abraham Ancer to Will Zalatoris. But the sport has precious few needle-moving stars. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka are all worthy champions. They’re just not Tiger or Phil, not close.

Their most recent wins, then, are the two most memorable golf tournaments of the past decade — full stop. When 2019 dawned, Woods hadn’t won a major in 11 years, Mickelson in six. Every major they turned up to they were part of the pretournament chatter, potential contenders who were also old enough to offer historical perspective. But under the veneer, there was the very real possibility that their best memories had already been made.

So take them apart because they have always seemed so joined. Woods’s victory at the Masters — his 15th major but first since the 2008 U.S. Open he won on a broken leg — would have appeared more likely on the eve of the event but nearly unthinkable two years out. In assessing Woods’s career, it’s worth a reminder not only that he was unable to play in a major for two full years but that, as he said, “I couldn’t get out of bed.”

When Woods withdrew from a European Tour event in Dubai early in 2017, he was ranked 674th in the world. His fourth back surgery — spinal fusion this time — followed. The question changed from, “Can he ever win again?” to “Can he ever play again?”

“I was done at that particular time,” Woods said at the Golf Writers Association of America awards dinner on the night before the Masters in 2019. “ … Golf was not in my near future or even my distant future. I knew I was going to be part of the game, but playing the game again? I couldn’t even do that with my son, Charlie. Couldn’t even putt in the backyard.”

But something strange happened as Woods was coming back. In the spring of 2018, he contended at the Valspar Championship, the PGA Tour stop in Tampa. Mickelson — long his rival, never really his friend — watched from home.

“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,” Mickelson said at that year’s Masters, where the pair joined in a nine-hole practice round. “It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well.”

Mickelson differs from Woods in all sorts of ways — not just personally but professionally. Tiger’s 14th major championship came when he was 32; Mickelson didn’t break through at a major until he was 33. Woods’s body broke down; Mickelson’s held up. Improvements in equipment have long made it seem as if Julius Boros’s standing as golf’s oldest major winner — 48 when he won the 1968 PGA — was in danger because aging players don’t lose distance like they once did. Mickelson believed he had an inherent advantage in knocking Boros from that perch: his swing.

“Because my swing is based on length and leverage and I haven’t had the injuries,” Mickelson said before the 2014 Masters, when he was 43 and ranked fifth in the world, “I feel like I’m able to compete at a much older age or later age than a lot of the players that have such a short, violent, high-torque golf swing.”

He believed that. Until Sunday, it didn’t hold up. In those same two years in which Woods couldn’t play any majors — 2016 and 2017 — Mickelson teed it up in seven of them, missing only the 2017 U.S. Open so he could attend his daughter’s high school graduation. (It’s a measure of Mickelson’s longevity that among the stories we remember is his pledge to withdraw from the 1999 U.S. Open — mid-round, even if he was contending, which he was — if his wife, Amy, went into labor with their first child.)

Feinstein: Phil Mickelson, a champion of comebacks and transformations, now has his greatest triumph

In those seven majors, Phil thrillingly contended at the 2016 British Open — losing out to flawless Henrik Stenson — finished outside the top 20 twice and missed four cuts. In the 27 majors between 2014 and this year’s Masters, Mickelson had three top-10 finishes — and eight missed cuts. His public confidence never waned, but his results suggested that he was closer to hitting an honorary tee shot than contending in major championships.

And then May 11, two days after finishing 69th in the Wells Fargo Championship despite an opening 64, he tweeted the following:

“I’ve failed many times in my life and career, and because of this I’ve learned a lot. Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.”

At the time, he was ranked 116th in the world, his lowest ranking in 28 years. When Tiger won his fifth Masters two years ago, he was ascendant, having emotionally won the Tour Championship the previous September. He had regained both his health and his standing in the game. When Phil won at Kiawah, he was nowhere. His path into next month’s U.S. Open in his hometown of San Diego was through a special exemption — which he accepted the week before the PGA.

The win at Kiawah makes the exemption irrelevant. Mickelson has earned his way to Torrey Pines, where a win — however improbable — would sweep aside his record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam. That will be the primary pretournament story line.

The other prominent narrative: Tiger’s absence following his harrowing February car crash, because Torrey Pines is the site of that 2008 U.S. Open, of Woods’s iconic birdie putt on the 72nd hole, of his 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate on that shredded knee and busted leg.

So here they are, joined again. Not on the golf course, but in golf’s consciousness. Phil and Tiger propelled the sport in their youth, through both injury and slump. They’re not done ruling it yet.

Read more:

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