LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There was a time when a Tiger vs. Phil pairing would have rattled the oaks that line Valhalla Golf Club’s fairways.
If Woods was the center of the golf universe, Mickelson’s orbit helped pull him along to greatness through force of inspiration. The game was at its best when Lefty was at his best, the prototypical archrival to the former world No. 1 who so thoroughly polarized fans.
The best show in town has been Tiger vs. Phil (see Championship, Ford, 2005) for more than decade.
All of which made Thursday’s exhibition a telling sign of the times for the two giants. It was not the rumble of a rivalry that rattled the trees on Day 1 at the 96th PGA Championship.
“Is that out of bounds over there, Bones?” Mickelson asked longtime caddie Jim Mackay as his opening tee shot at the 10th hole sailed left into the trees and toward a corporate tent.
As a general rule, “provisional” is not a word uttered by a major champion.
Things went even worse for the other half of the fight card.
At the seventh hole (the duo’s 16th of the day), it was a similar scenario for Woods when he flared his drive wildly out to the right and turned to his caddie Joe LaCava and asked, “That OB?”
“Think it’s TIO (temporary immovable obstruction) like mine on No. 10,” Mickelson offered.
For what it is worth, both players would par their respective missteps. Everything in between would fall into the TIO (two ignominious outings) category.
“It wasn’t very good,” Woods succinctly summed up his day. “A lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole.”
While Mickelson would recover from his unimpressive start, playing his final 10 holes in 4 under par for an opening 69, nothing felt right for Woods, not even his ailing back that led him to withdraw from last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational midway through the final round.
Some were surprised Woods even showed up this week considering his tender exit last week at Firestone, and moments after signing for his 3-over 74 he conceded that he’s still not 100 percent.
“I’m stiff, but that’s about it,” said Woods. He was then asked if his swing was impacted by his ailing back, “A little bit, but I’m used to it.”
Those who still flock to see Woods have become used to pedestrian play from the 14-time major champion in 2014.
After turning in 1 over par, which included a chip-in birdie at the par-4 16th hole, Woods began his second loop with a pair of wild drives that sailed left and found hazards, the first ending up in deep rough and the second a creek.
For the day, Woods produced four bogeys and a lone birdie, hit just 8 of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens in regulation and needed 30 putts.
“The man looked like he needs to play some golf. He looked kind of raw,” said Padraig Harrington, the third member of Thursday’s band at Valhalla.
Mickelson’s take was a tad more positive, but may end up striking a nerve when it lands in Woods’ inbox.
“I thought he played with a lot of heart,” Lefty said. “It's not easy when your game isn't where you want it and you're hitting shots that you don't normally hit.”
While well intended, Mickelson’s assessment was akin to the Southern staple, “Bless his heart.”
Both players, however, seem to have found themselves at a crossroads.
For the first time since 1995 there is the very real possibility that neither Tiger nor Phil will be among the United States’ dozen at this year’s Ryder Cup. For the first time since 2006 neither of the game’s Big Two is currently qualified for this year’s Tour Championship.
While Mickelson’s poor play is difficult to characterize, a self-fulfilling cycle of lost confidence and not a single top-10 finish on Tour this year, Woods’ troubles are a combination of rust and injury.
He struggled with back issues early in the year until a closing 78 at Doral sent him to the surgeon’s table for a microdiscectomy procedure on March 31, and his best finish since returning to the Tour has been a 69th-place showing last month at Royal Liverpool.
“On the range my swing was dialed in out there. Unfortunately, I didn't carry it to the golf course,” Woods said.
Neither player is bound for his golden years anytime soon - there is too much talent and determination for that. But what Thursday’s 18 demonstrated is the current state of the game.
For years Woods and Mickelson lamented the logistical realities of not being paired together very often. Thursday’s round was just the 32nd time in the duo’s career that they found themselves on the same tee in a Tour event.
“Unfortunately Phil and I just never get paired together,” Woods said. “It happens so rarely the first two days. We're always on the opposite side of the draw. It's always fun to play with him.”
That the dynamic duo now find themselves in a toe-to-toe match, however contrived it may be, with something well south of their best stuff is akin to getting an empty box on Christmas morning.
On Thursday at Valhalla the trees rattled, but for largely all the wrong reasons.