SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have combined to play 797 events and 2,824 rounds on the PGA Tour. They’ve enjoyed remarkable success, winning a combined 121 times, and they’ve been handsomely rewarded for their efforts, amassing more than $182 million in on-course earnings.
But, to repeat: They’ve played nearly 800 events. Or, think about it this way: Mickelson is entering his 22nd full season on Tour, which means he’s been competing on the world’s best circuit longer than Rookie of the Year Jordan Spieth has been alive. There’s a lot of mileage on these Ferraris.
High-profile athletes in other sports talk often about the grind of a sporting life, about how each year it gets more and more difficult to put on the uniform and go to work. Not Tiger and Phil.
As they arrived here at Torrey Pines to make their 2013-14 domestic debuts, the two greatest players of their generation talked about being hungrier than ever – an attitude derived from how, in recent years, they’ve adapted and evolved their disparate games.
Since last January there have been 19 wins by players in their 20s, but Tiger and Phil continue to thrive amid the youth movement. Woods, 38, won five times in 2013, including at a venue (TPC Sawgrass) that has never fit his eye. Mickelson, 43, meanwhile, won three times around the world and enjoyed one of the most satisfying wins of his career at the Open, a major that required a complete overhaul of his game.
This, though, figures to be an important year for both stars, legacy-wise, as they chase the tournaments they covet most.
Let’s start with Woods. Even though he is major-less since summer 2008 and has battled injuries for years and had his personal life tossed into a blender, he’s still on pace to reach 18 majors. Jack Nicklaus won his 15th, the 1978 Open, at age 38. Woods turned 38 last month. Entering their age-38 season, Tiger has just as many pro major starts (64) under his Nike belt as Jack did.
“Every year is a big year,” Woods said Wednesday, rebuffing the notion that this year, with a favorable foursome of major venues, is a critical year. “Every year counts. … I know that I don’t have 20 years in my prime (remaining). Most guys don’t jump from the foul line at age 58.”
Still, Woods says that he still pushes his body to the limit to prepare and be ready to compete. In recent years, though, his body has pushed back, and playing a full schedule, with no setbacks, has proved elusive. Since 2009 there has been a variety of assorted ailments: neck, knee, Achilles’ tendon (twice), back, elbow. More so than the fierce competition or the major weekend struggles, a clean bill of health likely remains his biggest hurdle.
Woods acknowledged that although he’s still able to generate the same clubhead speed as he once did (between 118 and 120 mph each of the past four years), he cannot summon that velocity on every shot. “I don’t have the rotational speed that I used to,” he said, before adding that he’s “infinitely stronger” and “more explosive” in exercises.
So, yes, even Woods, with his boxer’s waistline and running back’s biceps, cannot escape the signs of aging. As a result, his game has needed to evolve.
These days, Woods finds himself thinking his way around the course more than ever before. Depending on tournament conditions, he can either rear back and bomb it, like he did last year at Firestone, or he can “dink and dunk” and play “small ball,” like he did at The Players.
“You’re still able to be successful,” he said, “but you do it a different way. You evolve as you age.”
Mickelson has undergone a similar transformation. Five years older than Woods, Lefty has avoided serious setbacks with injuries but revealed in 2010 that he suffers from psoriatic arthritis. Though he’s been able to manage the symptoms with medication – while also being more conscientious of his diet and workouts – Mickelson clearly has lost distance off the tee, dropping from 299 yards per pop in 2010 to just 287 last year.
“It’s just more effort to be able to play golf at the highest level,” he said.
Unlike Woods, who now relies more on his mind and course management, Mickelson has instead turned to his equipment to help sustain his high level of play. Over the past few years, he says he has been able to turn his weaknesses into strengths. He has improved nearly 130 spots in strokes gained-putting since 2011 (all the way to No. 6 last year), and the new technology in his driver – lowering the center of gravity, reducing the spin rate – has bolstered his belief off the tee.
“I’m more excited about this year than any year ever,” he said.
That’s typical Phil gusto, of course, but his game was surprisingly sharp a week ago in Abu Dhabi, where he likely would have won if not for an ill-advised decision from the bushes in the final round. His renewed confidence is also a significant reason why Mickelson has embraced his pursuit of the career grand slam, why, even in January, the upcoming Open at Pinehurst is a topic of discussion.
“I feel like it’s just a matter of time,” Mickelson said of the U.S. Open breakthrough. “I actually believe I’ll win a couple.”
How about that? In golf, it seems, you’re never too old to win something new.