Is this the end?
There are many pressing questions facing golf in 2015 — Can Rory complete the career Grand Slam? Is Michelle Wie for real? Will Ian Poulter’s next Ferrari be red or white? — but the biggest unknown by far is whether the Tiger and Phil era is, in fact, over. Last season marked the first time in nearly two decades that neither Woods nor Mickelson won a professional tournament. Tiger will be 40 in December, and his body has broken under the strain of his obsessive workout routine and a lifetime of grinding on the range. (In fact, he’s been at it for so long his age should probably be measured in dog years.)
Woods will arrive at Augusta (we presume) nearly seven calendar years removed from his last major championship victory, a drought that has extended through what should have been the prime of his career. He will be attempting to become the first player ever to win a Masters with four different swings. Tiger ended 2014 at 32nd in the World Ranking, but such is his cult of personality that CBS analyst David Feherty recently said: ”It would surprise me if, by the end of this season, he’s not No. 1 in the world again. The only mistakes I’ve ever made with Tiger Woods are underestimating him. If you think he can’t do that, well, he kind of thinks he can.”
Mickelson is an arthritic 44-year-old who looked strangely disinterested for most of the 2014 season. He found a little inspiration at the PGA Championship and could have salvaged his year with a victory, but he looked drained coming down the stretch, bogeying the 70th hole to open the door for McIlroy. Yet Mickelson, like Woods, has towered over the game for so long that we can’t quit him, either. Phil spent the offseason dropping 20 pounds and has rejiggered his early-season schedule to be fresher for Augusta and his continued, quixotic quest to win a U.S. Open. According to Mickelson’s wife, Amy, Phil has not lost the belief that has sustained him through some of the most heart-wrenching defeats of the modern era. “He’s the most positive person in the world,” she says. “He’ll be working on some part of his body that’s been injured, and I can tell he’s uncomfortable, but he’ll say, ’I’m fine. I feel great — best shape of my life.’ The thing is, he tells himself that so much he really believes it.”
Do either or both of these proud champions have one last run in them to put an exclamation point on their Hall of Fame careers? The mind says no but the heart can’t resist hoping for a yes.
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Tiger and Phil grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles but linked by their talent — both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by five and a half years, Mickelson loomed over Woods’ early golfing life. “Phil was an icon to us,” says one of Tiger’s friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, who would also go on to a career on the PGA Tour.
Woods’s late father Earl always received most of the credit for his son’s competitive spirit, but it was mom Tida who sharpened Tiger’s killer instinct. With her, it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was considered not just a competitor but a threat. So as Woods chased Mickelson’s numerous junior records, he was imbued with a certain disdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.
Tiger is still Tiger. And Phil is still Phil. Is that enough any more? We'll find out for sure this year.
All these years later Tiger and Phil are still measuring themselves against each other. Woods’s career achievements — 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour victories — are untouchable, but Tiger is keenly aware that since his last major win (2008 U.S. Open) Phil has nabbed a Masters and a British Open. What hurts just as much is that Mickelson has repeatedly outplayed him in head-to-head matchups, notably the 64-75 thrashing on Sunday at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach, which was Mickelson’s 40th career victory. A decade ago, Mickelson had a question he loved to trot out in press conferences: “If Tiger is the best player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that make me?” Woods has many motivations to keep pushing for a return to glory, but surely he doesn’t want to be eclipsed by his old rival in the last act of his career.
Meanwhile, Mickelson remains motivated by the pursuit of the one thing he seemingly can’t have. His entire 2014 season was reduced to a single tournament: the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where 15 years earlier he had begun his ritualistic heartbreak at the national championship. This year’s venue is Chambers Bay, a quirky neo-links in Tacoma, Wash. Since it’s never hosted a professional tournament, it’s hard to say for sure what kind of player Chambers favors, but it’s a big, rollicking ballpark that will be more generous off the tee than most Open venues and will demand more creativity around the greens. Sounds about right for Mickelson, no?
The highlight of the summer will be a return to St. Andrews, where Woods has won two of his three British Opens, in 2000 and ’05. This famous auld sod used to be his private playground, but Tiger long ago stopped being a sure thing there, or anywhere else. Last year he hit rock-bottom, with a serious back injury and related maladies limiting him to seven tournaments, only two of which he lasted for the full 72 holes. In an attempt to regain his old mojo, he has gone back to the future, hiring someone named Chris Como as swing “consultant” to help him refashion his swing into something close to what it was in the halcyon days of his youth. (Woods’ goal has always been to “own” his swing, and thus he prefers the verbiage of the business world — consultant — as opposed to “coach,” which would imply that he actually has something to learn.) At the World Challenge in December 2014, Woods gave the golf world a sneak peek at his action, and the reviews were guardedly optimistic, as he seemed to be swinging with more freedom and conviction.
Of course, the story of that week was his shocking chip-yips. Woods chalked up his struggles around the greens to rust, but by all reports he was wedging it beautifully in the practice rounds. The stunning yippiness continued during early-season starts at Phoenix and Torrey Pines, and it was baffling and more than a little sad to watch Woods duff, blade, chunk, skull and chili-dip chip after chip. Woods withdrew midway through the second round at Torrey, citing "deactivated" glutes. This became the butt of endless jokes, which masked a larger problem: Tiger had quit again. Shortly thereafter he announced he was taking a sabbatical to work on his game — and, presumably, his mind — without millions of fans and critics passing judgment. For Woods to cry uncle and flee tournament golf was the most graphic evidence yet that for all the questions about his body, his biggest problems are metaphysical.
During his heyday, Woods could hit any shot and he putted better than anybody ever has, but what separated him from everyone else came from his heart and his head. His belief in himself was absolute, and unshakeable. Under pressure he was the clearest thinker and the most resilient. Success begat success. But Woods is a different person now. His sense of self was destroyed after suffering through the most public humiliation of the Internet age. Being between the ropes used to be his sanctuary, but suddenly he was all alone out there, on display for the masses to pass judgment. The bulletproof confidence has been blasted away by repeated defeats large and small.
Meanwhile, a new generation has risen, minus the scar tissue that came with the repeated beatings Woods dished out around the turn of the century. Rory McIlroy, a once-in-a-lifetime talent on par with Woods and Mickelson, attacks and overwhelms golf courses with an insouciance that is utterly foreign to his aging rivals. Despite the pyrotechnics of a myth-making victory at the 1997 Masters, Woods always favored precision over power. His game plans became more conservative in the post-hydrant era, as he seemed increasingly afraid of the big miss with his driver. In 2014 his average clubhead speed with the big stick was 115.63 miles per hour. If he had recorded enough attempts to officially qualify for the stat, Woods would have ranked 55th on Tour — right above Mickelson, who was at 115.62. Woods’ diminished power is part of a larger decline in a game that is no longer as well suited for the major championships, with their more exacting conditions. The trajectory of his irons became significantly lower in the Sean Foley years, just as he became shakier over short putts.
Woods will never again be the player he was. Even if he can find some form close to that impossible standard, the competition is much stronger than when he was vacuuming up major championship victories. Mickelson used to be the only player who was even close to Woods, talent-wise. Now, the 25-year-old McIlroy is already four-fifths of the way towards Phil’s career total of majors, and he’s only getting better and more confident. Tiger forged his legend at The Masters, winning three of his first six as a pro, but in the last decade he’s won only one more while Mickelson snagged three. And yet neither can still be considered the current King of Augusta — that honorific title goes to Bubba Watson, who has won two of the last three with an unbeatable combination of power and finesse.
In 2013, as defending champ, Watson was asked if he was the favorite to win the Green Jacket. He shook his head no and anointed a figure from the past. “He’s still Tiger Woods,” Watson said. And Phil Mickelson is still Phil Mickelson. Is that enough anymore? The 2014 season hinted at an answer. We’ll find out for sure this year.