AUGUSTA, Ga. – Back when most PGA Tour pros were quietly saying they would rather avoid a pairing with Tiger Woods in his return to golf, Phil Mickelson said he would relish it.
How about in another Sunday pairing at the Masters? How about in the final pairing this year?
The enticing possibility lurks.
Through two rounds of the Masters, Woods and Mickelson are tied for third just two shots off the lead.
Saturday is setup day to make the pairing happen.
There’s no more compelling match-up possible for a Sunday Masters’ finish than Woods vs. Mickelson.
So much is still possible with so many quality players within five shots of the lead, but memories of what Woods and Mickelson gave us here a year ago make you want more.
Woods vs. Mickelson was the undercard in their head-to-head match-up in last year’s final round at Augusta National, but what an undercard.
Tied for 10th, seven shots off the lead, they almost stole the show in their heavyweight tussle.
Who doesn’t want to see that here again?
But with a green jacket the prize?
Mickelson shot 67 in their duel last year, Woods 68.
With Woods struggling with family issues in the fallout from his marital infidelities, and with Mickelson enduring the pain of seeing his wife and mother recover from breast cancer, the dynamic of the match-up would be fascinatingly complex. So would the reaction of golf fans.
But purely as players, the dynamic’s fascinating enough.
Woods is the dominant player of this era, maybe any era, but Mickelson can still carve out a place as the toughest foe for Woods. There’s still time for him to be what Lee Trevino was to Jack Nicklaus. The proof is in the upper hand that Mickelson seems to be getting in their head-to-head match-ups.
Mickelson whipped Woods in the final round on his way to winning when they were last paired together at the HSBC Champions event in China last fall. The last six times they’ve been paired together in PGA Tour events, Woods has posted the lower score just once.
Mickelson looked poised to make a run at the No. 1 ranking in the world with his strong finish a year ago, but he couldn’t keep the momentum going. He’s winless on the year coming to the Masters for the first time since 2003. Exactly how much a toll his family challenges have taken on him is unclear.
Still, Mickelson seems to be putting his game together here this week.
On the back nine Friday, Mickelson drove the ball with authority. We can talk all we want about his putting woes, but there’s nothing that gets Mickelson more fired up about his game than when he’s driving the ball long and straight. He’s doing that so far this week.
Mickelson squandered chances to take command of the Masters on Friday. He missed a 10-foot birdie chance at the 11th hole, three-putted the 15th and missed an 8-foot birdie chance at the 16th, and yet he’s just two shots off the lead.
“There’s nothing like being in contention on the weekend at Augusta National,' Mickelson said after posting a 1-under-par 71. 'There’s no better feeling in the game. There’s nothing you dream of more. I’m within two shots, I’ve played very well and I feel like I’m right on the edge.”
Mickelson and Woods are among five players at 6-under 138. Mickelson took 31 putts Saturday, but he isn’t talking about what’s wrong with his putter anymore. He’s talking about what’s right with it.
“The good news is I’m making all the short ones because I’m rolling the ball well,” Mickelson said. “I’m giving myself a lot of putts a chance, and that’s what I care about.”
If the stars align, if Woods and Mickelson somehow find their way into the final Sunday pairing, all of golf will care.