AUGUSTA, Ga. — Just past 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, on the kind of morning the powers who run Augusta National Golf Club seem to be able to summon precisely when they want it, Tiger Woods, the Masters champion in 1997 and 2001 and 2002 and 2005, arrived at the 10th tee box. Awaiting him there were Phil Mickelson, who won here in 2004 and 2006 and 2010; Fred Couples, the 1992 champion; and Thomas Pieters, a talented Belgian who just might host a champions’ dinner one day.
“It’s four, three, one,” Mickelson said, and he nodded at the players in order of their Masters titles, Pieters the leper in the group. Woods would start this nine-hole practice round — a nine-hole practice round that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago — with the honors.
“It’s a respect thing,” Mickelson said later.
Do two things, simultaneously: Marvel at that scene and that statement, Mickelson and Woods together for a practice round at Augusta, with an underlying theme of respect and camaraderie and fun. And be careful, because each of these characters — central as they are to the game of golf as a whole, central as they are to what could be an enthralling Masters ahead — only allows us into the edges of his life, his feelings, how he thinks and works and relates.
But even with caution in mind, there was no escaping the theme to this day. Tiger and Phil, on a perfect Augusta morning, playing a perfectly friendly warmup round for a Masters in which they both hope to — no, expect to — contend. A dozen years ago, they swapped the role of putting the green jacket on the other, Mickelson anointing Woods in 2005, Woods dressing Mickelson the following year. It all appeared an awkward dance full of forced smiles. They were the two best players in the game, and if there wasn’t genuine animus, there was also little warmth. They were different people, each other’s chief adversary, competitors who were playing not only for their sport’s greatest prizes but for spots in history.
Time, though, can change circumstances, and maybe even change people. So the game Tuesday morning wasn’t Tiger vs. Phil. It was Tiger and Phil together, taking on Couples and Pieters. And if you think it’s just us, on the outside, who think of this as an odd pairing — well, it’s not. Later Tuesday, Woods walked by Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion, on the practice range.
“I said, ‘I never thought I would see the day,’ ” McIlroy said. “ ‘Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.’ ”
What a day, then. It meant nothing for the tournament to follow. But it means something for golf. It’s no exaggeration to say that at each hole the group played around the back nine, thousands of people craned necks and scrambled for position as if this was the tournament itself, not a quiet, nine-hole match. On a Tuesday morning, these were Sunday evening galleries.
“Seemed like there were a lot of people,” Mickelson deadpanned afterward. “They seemed pretty excited.”
And why not? We’ll never know exactly how Mickelson and Woods felt about each other when they were in their 20s and 30s, those times they entered each major as co-favorites. Then, they were forced to answer questions about each other — Mickelson about Woods, in particular — when each was consumed only with bettering himself.
But it’s also impossible not to acknowledge Tuesday as something of a transition, a public acknowledgment that their relationship has evolved and matured.
Take Phil, on Tiger:
“Nobody respects and appreciates what he’s done for the game more because nobody’s benefited from what he’s done for the game of golf more than I have,” Mickelson said. “I’ve always had that appreciation and respect for him.”
Now Tiger, on Phil:
“You see the chances he’s taken over the years,” Woods said. “The reason why he does that is because he knows he can do it and he has that belief. And that’s what has separated him. That’s why he’s won so many tournaments. That’s why he’s won so many major championships, is that he truly believes he can pull it off.”
Those sentiments, that warmth, maybe they existed a decade ago. If so, they never surfaced like this. The truth is, Woods and Mickelson sought each other out for Tuesday’s practice round. They could have played with anyone. They played with each other.
This is guesswork, to a degree, but it seems certain a couple of things happened to these two along the way. Woods has dealt with genuine adversity, both self-inflicted personal travails and debilitating injury, and his absence first from contention and then from golf altogether made those who were left competing — get this — miss him. Mickelson’s struggles were more subtle, but once he won the most recent of his five majors, the 2013 British Open, he went nearly five years without winning again, battling his putting stroke to the point that he had to rebuild it.
As they crept into their 40s, one no longer had the other as a foil. They only had doubts about whether each could return to prominence. Competition was replaced by, of all things, compassion. When Woods’s brittle back left him unable to compete on recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, turning him from player to assistant captain, they started to see each other differently.
“Phil was great,” Woods said. “He was trying to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback. My body wasn’t feeling very good.”
Mickelson’s response, according to Woods: “How can I help?”
Mickelson’s drought ended the first weekend of March with an impressive victory in Mexico. The very next week, Woods’s comeback from his latest back surgery seemed complete when he contended in Tampa, facing a putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. That week, Woods received the strangest bit of encouragement: a text from Mickelson, who was sitting out.
“It felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him,” Mickelson said. “It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well.”
In their match against Couples and Pieters, they lost the first two holes — and then flogged them. Woods poured in an eagle putt at the par-5 13th, then hit a second-shot approach at the par-5 15th that seemed vintage, his second eagle in three holes. Mickelson birdied 16 and 17. Woods, whose resurgent club-head speed is remarkable given all the surgeries, bombed the ball. Mickelson, whose creativity and self-belief are his greatest attributes, put on a flop-shot clinic from behind the 15th green, holing one with a 64-degree wedge.
“Just silly,” Woods said.
They were, more than anything, at ease. Maybe it makes sense. Woods is 42. Mickelson is 47. They are fully formed as public figures. Their accomplishments and foibles have been exposed. Whatever situation arises this week, they have faced it before. Maybe, just maybe, they’re even self-aware.
“We’re at the tail end of our careers,” Woods said. “We both know that. . . . We have had a great 20-year battle. Hopefully we’ll have a few more.”
A few more? What about just this week? “They may be paired together on Sunday,” Couples said.
If only. This Masters is promising because of the list of characters poised to contend. None are more prominent than the two 40-somethings with seven green jackets and 19 major championships between them. Wouldn’t it be cool if the others ceded the stage to these two, one more time? It’s a respect thing.