AUGUTSA, Ga. – The news conferences held prior to the start of a major championship are usually a waste of time. This week at The Masters has been no exception. Everyone parades through the interview room, accompanied by a club member who drones about how wonderful it is to have each player at the tournament.
The players are all equally thrilled to be there – and can’t wait to not be there anymore. The same is true Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who both understand that they have to go through the ritual but would rather make a trip to a local Augusta dentist.
They were both there on Tuesday, smiling so that no one could see their teeth grinding. Both have always tried to play down the tension that has always existed between them – some of it competitive but a lot of it based on how different they are. An answer that each gave on Tuesday unintentionally opened a window into those differences.
Mickelson, as the defending champion and someone who has won three of his four majors at Augusta National, was asked what it means to come back here each spring.
“When I drive down Magnolia Lane, I get re-energized with the game of golf,” he said. “You know I’ve played since I was a year-and-a-half old. I’m 40, so 38-and-a-half years I’m playing this game. But when I come here it reminds me of that.
“I could easily forget week in and week out playing the PGA Tour how lucky I am to play the game. When I come back to Augusta National I just remember how much I loved it as a kid, dreamed of playing the Tour, dreamed of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament and being a part of it. All of the feelings come back when I drive down Magnolia Lane. It just reinvigorates my passion for the game.”
You can almost hear the syrupy music can’t you?
Not long after Mickelson departed, Woods showed up, giving all his usual Tiger-speak answers, ducking anything remotely personal while going on about the ‘process,’ of his latest swing change. His most honest answer may have come when someone asked him about Mickelson’s musing about Magnolia Lane.
“For me it’s not quite driving down Magnolia Lane that does it,” he said. “It’s getting out here on the range and getting to the first tee or walking under the tree and going to the first tee. That to me, and looking out at the golf course, that’s what really gets me fired up.
“Driving down Magnolia Lane is just looking at some trees really. The golf course is where I do my work and to me that’s what is exciting to me. I love walking into that clubhouse and going straight into the golf course. I’m excited just thinking about going out there because that to me is the rush, is getting out there and playing the golf course.”
One guy drives down Magnolia Lane and feels the history of the game, gets chills and teary-eyed. The other guys sees a bunch of trees and can’t wait to get to the end of the road and get to work.
That’s always been a major difference between the two men: Mickelson savors victories and moments; Woods puts them in the rear view mirror almost as soon as they happen.
That has been a part of Woods’ greatness. Nothing is enough for him. When he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots his first comment to USGA president Trey Holland was about a ruling Holland didn’t give him early in the final round. When he won his first Masters by 12 shots someone asked him if it was possible for him to ever play better – even though he was only 21 – in a major. His answer was short and sweet: “I did shoot 40 the first nine holes.”
There’s no question that approach, the notion that driving up Magnolia Lane is something you do on your way to work, has helped make Woods the champion that he has been and may be again. It has also made him a remarkably unhappy person even in what should be moments of great joy.
Win the Masters, start getting ready for the U.S. Open. Win a Tiger Slam, set your focus on a Grand Slam. Break Nicklaus’s record some day, put the new record so far out there that no one can challenge it. That’s who he is.
Mickelson embraces every moment of joy. Perhaps if he didn’t sleep in the green jacket after winning the Masters or begin grinding for the next major five minutes after the end of the last one he would have more than four major titles. Perhaps not.
Mickelson has enjoyed his victories a lot more than Woods has enjoyed his victories. Woods sees winning golf tournaments as a means to an end. Mickelson sees winning golf tournaments as a means to start a celebration.
It isn’t that one way is right or one way is wrong. They are simply very different. One man gets teary-eyed with joy when he sees all those trees on Magnolia Lane. The other only gets teary-eyed if his allergies kick in.