LOS ANGELES – The juxtaposition was glaring.
A day after the 41-year-old who is fresh from multiple surgeries canceled a news conference because his doctors advised him it was best to remain horizontal, the 46-year-old who is recovering from two offseason surgeries electrified the crowd at Riviera Country Club with an opening 67.
For the latter, Phil Mickelson, his 4-under effort left him tied for fifth place on a cold and gloomy day; while the former, Tiger Woods, remained tethered to an undisclosed couch waiting for his back spasms to subside so he could plot his next move.
Comparisons between Woods and, well, anyone are always patently unfair. Fourteen majors has a way of ending all debates, and Lefty is loath to consider the gulf that currently separates this generation’s greatest players, although his reaction to the obvious comparisons was interesting.
“That's hard because it's not a fair comparison just because I'm five years older,” Mickelson said on Thursday at Riviera.
Interpret Mickelson’s take however you’d like, but the current landscape speaks for itself.
Mickelson, who had two surgeries this offseason to repair a sports hernia, is playing his fifth consecutive week and hasn’t missed a cut, finishing tied for 21st, 14th, 16th and 65th in his first four outings of 2017.
Conversely, Woods missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, his first official PGA Tour start in 15 months, withdrew after just one round the next week in Dubai with back spasms and recently announced he wouldn’t be playing the Genesis Open, where he is the unofficial host, or next week’s Honda Classic because of ongoing back issues.
On Wednesday, Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg told The Associated Press that Woods' doctors “advised he just stay horizontal.” On Thursday, Mickelson was charging vertically up the leaderboard.
Two weeks ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open Mickelson was asked the source of his longevity and his answer was as detailed as it was damning for Woods.
“I think there are two things that [have] allowed me to elongate my career,” he explained. “One is I give a lot of credit to Sean Cochran and him staying up on new techniques, having our workouts be designed to be built around golf and elongating careers, so building the stabilizing muscles rather than building up just the big muscles.
“Secondly, the swing I have does not put a lot of pressure on my low back and spine and whatnot. It was built more around using the leverage and motion to create speed rather than a violent, brutal force while isolating a couple of joints.”
Mickelson never mentioned Woods, never used him as an example of what not to do or as a cautionary tale. He didn’t have to.
Woods’ training regimen is well documented and his intense workouts have been a point of concern for some within his inner circle for years.
“Tiger did two tandem parachute jumps, engaged in hand-to-hand combat exercises, went on four-mile runs wearing combat boots, and did drills in a wind tunnel,” his former swing coach Hank Haney wrote in the 2012 book "The Big Miss: My years coaching Tiger Woods." “Tiger loved it, but his physical therapist, Keith Kleven, went a little crazy worrying about the further damage Tiger might be doing to his left knee.”
Although there is no way to know for sure, that intense training, along with what was widely considered one of the game’s most explosive swings, is often blamed for Woods’ ongoing health issues.
All told, Tiger has had multiple surgeries on his left knee and three back procedures since April 2014, the latest coming in October 2015 to relieve discomfort.
Mickelson, however, has largely avoided the surgeon’s table. Other than a hip procedure early in his career, his bookend hernia operations are the extent of Lefty’s surgical records, and that’s by design.
“He’s been very diligent with his strength and conditioning program, and that program has been very specific in addressing the requirements of the golf swing,” said Cochran, who has been training Mickelson since 2003. “First and foremost is injury prevention.”
In 2010, Mickelson was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system misfires against its own joints and tendons. As a result, he dramatically adjusted his diet and intensified his training with Cochran.
That worked paid off this offseason when Mickelson was sidelined by surgery and recovery, a process he was unfamiliar with. But he embraced the plan if not the plodding nature that is such a part of rehabilitation.
“As with any athlete in any sport, you have to let the body have a proper amount of time to rest,” Cochran said. “It was a pitch count. You’re not coming out the first day after surgery and hitting drivers at full speed. It’s just not how you do it. You start with wedges and build up.”
Comparisons, particularly to Woods, are always unfair, and luck certainly plays a role when it comes to athletes and injury; but it was impossible to ignore the contrast between Lefty and Tiger on Day 1 in Los Angeles.
One was horizontal, the other was hungry for another round.