AUGUSTA, Ga. – You would think that a rivalry would be simple math.
(Great player + Great player) x (Shared years) = Rivalry.
But rivalries don’t work that way. There is some calculus in there, some strange X factor involving timing and rapport and styles and the way talents bounce off talents. It seems almost impossible that a real rivalry between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson never developed at Augusta. But it never did. And, more and more, it looks like it never will.
This Masters, for the first time in 20 years, will not feature either Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson on the weekend. Woods, of course, could not play in the tournament because of a back injury that was probably talked about more in Augusta the first two days than any player. Nobody knows when Woods will be return – rumors fluctuate from a stunning recovery in time for the U.S. Open to him missing the whole golf season. Either way, back injuries are not good.
Then Phil Mickelson missed the cut for the first time since 1997 – which just so happened to be the tournament Tiger Woods won, changing golf. He shot 5 over over two days, one shot off the cut line.
“I didn’t play great,” Mickelson would say, “I didn’t play bad. I just had one bad hole there at 12.”
Yeah, that was a bad hole. Mickelson hit his tee shot into the front bunker. He hit his second shot into the back bunker. He hit his third shot BACK into the front bunker. He hit his fourth shot on the green (“I found grass,” he said) and two putts later he finished off the rare triple bogey at the famous No. 12 without even hitting the ball into the water.
But the point here is not Mickelson’s two triple bogeys in two days (he shot 1 under on the other 34 holes) or that his Augusta magic seems to have dulled the last couple of years, but to lament that the Woods-Mickelson Masters rivalry that seemed so certain just never materialized. They have been the best two Masters players of their time. Combined they have won seven of the last 17 Masters.
And yet they never really had a showdown, never really had an Augusta duel, never really had that moment where they were both at their best and both had a shot at the green jacket.
Seems so weird. But is it? What has made the greatest rivalries special – what made Bird-Magic, what made Chrissie-Martina, what made Wilt-Russell and Ali-Frazier and Watson-Nicklaus – were those great encounters, the Thrilla, the Duel in the Sun, the NBA Finals, the 1985 French Open. That’s when we could really see the best athletes’ greatness reflect off each other.
Tiger’s and Phil’s talents just didn’t reflect. On the surface, they had everything to set up for a beautiful feud. They both have loved the layout and history and feel of Augusta National. Tiger was a righty, Phil a lefty, Tiger fierce, Phil jocular, Tiger calculated and precise while Phil gambled away. Story after story emerged that they didn’t like each other; that can add to the beautiful tension of a great rivalry. Everything set up.
But they just didn’t lift each other up the way real rivals do. When Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had their famous match at the British Open at Turnberry in 1977 – for the last two rounds they were miles ahead of everyone else and traded great shots the way Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier traded hooks and crosses – they barely said a word to each other. But late in the final round, when the gallery was so charged with excitement, they had to stop for a moment.
“This is what it’s all about it, isn’t it?” Watson said.
“You bet it is,” Nicklaus replied.
And then they finished off with one of the greatest golf endings ever, Nicklaus making an impossible birdie on the 18th, Watson making his own birdie right over the top.
Mickelson and Woods just couldn’t inspire and motivate each other like that. Who can say why? Woods won back-to-back Masters in 2000 and 2001 and Mickelson finished third both years – but Mickelson never actually threatened to WIN those tournaments. That was in the days when Woods finished golf tournaments with the detached precision of a great heart surgeon.
And when Mickelson won his three Masters, Woods wasn’t ever really a threat – the closest he ever came was when he finished tied for third in 2006. Sometimes one was great, sometimes another, but they never shared the stratosphere. The two of them did make a little bit of a run at the 2008 Masters, but neither won, neither came close to winning.
Much of this was Tiger’s peculiar gift for winning major champions: His amazing game did not really leave much room for a rival. He has not yet come from behind on Sunday to win any major championship and, conversely, he has lost a lead on Sunday only once (Y.E. Yang came back to beat him in the 2009 PGA Championship).
So when you never blow a lead and never come from behind, that does tend to limit the possibilities of having a classic battle on Sunday. Woods has been so unique that, in the end, major championships have often been about him and him alone. Mickelson has always been more volatile and mercurial.
It’s all a little bit sad. I always wanted to see Woods and Mickelson battle for the end. But it hasn’t happened, and it obviously won’t happen this year, and while the end may not be here it does feel like the movie credits are beginning to roll. Woods is 38, closing fast on 39, and in the last few years he’s hurt his leg, his knee, his neck, his shoulder and his back. Mickelson turns 44 during the U.S. Open this year, and he does pharmaceutical commercials.
So it’s becoming increasingly likely that we will never see the two best golfers of this generation have their classic battle. We could look elsewhere. We could have a great battle this weekend between the last two Masters champions, Adam Scott (at 3 under now) and Bubba Watson (leading at 7 under), and that would be fun. Twenty-year-old Jordan Spieth is on the board and he’s a potentially fun rival for somebody older.
And there are a LOT of older guys still in the field including Larry Mize (55), Sandy Lyle (56), Bernhard Langer (56), Fred Couples (54), Vijay Singh (51) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (50). That’s six 50-somethings still playing in this tournament, a record, so there could be some old grudges played out.
But Woods-Mickelson just won’t happen. Again. The math just never worked out.