Woods brings out the best in Mickelson


NORTON, Mass. – “Tiger, Adam, let’s have some fun,” smiled Phil Mickelson as the week’s marquee threesome set out early Friday at TPC Boston.

Not sure how much fun the day was for Woods and Scott, but for Mickelson the opening round at the Deutsche Bank Championship qualified as a genuine hoot.

Moments after sending 2013’s “Big 3” out with a smile from TPC Boston’s 10th tee, Lefty began a birdie barrage that featured eight one-putts through his first nine holes and an outward nine of 28.

There were birdie bombs at Nos. 10 (18 feet), 11 (27 feet), 14 (17 feet), 17 (11 feet) and 18 (7 feet) to turn in 7 under. A bogey at the first slowed his assault, but only temporarily following a towering 6-iron second shot at the second hole to 2 feet for a kick-in eagle.

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The hash tag #59watch began trending on Twitter and Golf Channel broke into normal coverage to follow Mickelson to the magic number. Spoiler alert: he came up short of 59. In fact, he came up short of 60, his opening-round card earlier this season at TPC Scottsdale when he got off to a similarly scorching start.

But it was fun.

Lefty said when he failed to birdie Nos. 3 and 4 his quest for 59 was shelved, at least internally, and, “I just wanted to shoot something in the low 60s,” he said. Despite a “mind blank” snap hook at his final hole which led to his second bogey of the day, Mickelson signed for a 63 and an early lead at TPC Birdie-fest.

Good round? Sure. Fun? No doubt. But this one felt better than the sum of its parts. They always do when the southpaw is paired with Woods.

“I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me,” Mickelson said on the eve of last year’s U.S. Open.

On Friday we asked Mickelson if he still felt that way when the tee sheet stars align and send him and Woods out together. “After today it sure feels that way,” he smiled.

There was an apropos sense of history to Friday’s round. The last time Mickelson, Woods and Scott were paired together was for the first two rounds of the 2008 U.S. Open when the world No. 1 was playing on a broken leg and Lefty was playing without a driver. It’s fair to say Woods is still not 100 percent healthy, although he said after his round his ailing back was better, and Phil still doesn’t have a driver in the bag. But it seems everything else has changed.

Mickelson has won two majors, including this year’s Open Championship, since then. Woods remains stuck on 14. Lefty seems invigorated, maybe even inspired, when paired with Woods; Tiger appears indifferent, not to the competition, mind you, but to the moment.

The duo’s head-to-head history seemed to reach a tipping point at the 2007 Deutsche Bank. Paired together for Rounds 1 and 2, Mickelson outplayed Woods through 36 holes (134-136), trading matching 64s in Round 2, and Lefty went on to beat Woods by two strokes.

Since that meeting, Mickelson held a 7-5-1 head-to-head advantage over Woods, including last year’s final-round romp at Pebble Beach when Lefty closed with 64 to win and lap Woods by 11 strokes. Before that 2007 clash at TPC Boston Mickelson was 4-10-2 when paired with Woods.

Part of that turnaround can be attributed to Woods’ competitive slide that began in 2010, part goes to Butch Harmon, who reportedly helped Mickelson to better understand the nuances of playing with Woods when they began working together.

Yet the final analysis remains, if Mickelson played every round with Woods he might be the one closing on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships right now.

When asked Friday why Mickelson seems to rise to the occasion when he is paired with Woods, Harmon was succinct: “Because he loves the challenge of going head to head with Tiger,” he said.

Mickelson understands better than anyone else that if you can beat Woods, even in the microcosm of a single day, the odds are good you’re beating everyone else as well.

So while the golf world fixated on Mickelson’s flirtation with 59, it seems Lefty was more interested in securing low-ball honors for the 8:40 a.m. group. Besides, Mickelson already made his run at 59 this season, blazing out to another hot start fin Round 1 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open only to miss multiple birdie attempts coming down the stretch to settle for a 60.

“My ball-striking was OK,” reasoned Mickelson, who hit 11 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens and needed 25 putts. “I didn’t hit shots exceedingly close, but the ones I had to make to have a really hot round I did. But I didn’t feel like I was knocking down the pins.”

So he settled for a 63 and an early one-stroke lead, yet there was a calmness to him that reached beyond his scorching start. Woods signed for a 68. Make that 8-5-1 when paired with Woods since 2007.