AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson carved a Hall of Fame career out of the Tiger Woods era.
He is the best player of his generation not named Tiger.
Those aren’t consolation prizes.
Those are triumphs to be celebrated as Mickelson gears up for another Masters, because Tiger’s shadow could stifle growth. As much life as Woods breathed into the game, he could suck the oxygen off a tee box. Woods won so many Tour titles (79) and so many majors (14), there were fewer for everybody else to win.
“If you take away Tiger Woods, Phil probably gets 10 to 12 majors,” Fred Couples said Tuesday.
That’s the flip side of all that Mickelson has achieved, but he refuses to limit his vision to a view that narrow.
“It's very possible that that's the case, and it's also possible that he brought out the best in me, and forced me to work harder and focus, to ultimately achieve the success I've had,” Mickelson said. “And it's hard to determine, looking back, which one it is.
“I know I've appreciated the challenge of playing and competing against him, and I also appreciate the level of greatness that he's achieved in his career.”
That’s vintage Mickelson. He went even further, telling reporters he is grateful for all the beatings Woods gave him. Well, not in those words, exactly, but listen ...
“Nobody respects and appreciates what Tiger has done for the game more, because nobody has benefited from what he's done for the game of golf more than I have,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson cited the boom in Tour purses, exposure and opportunities that Woods created.
“To see him back out playing is incredible,” Mickelson said. “We all feel that.”
Mickelson was riveted watching Woods make that weekend run at the Valspar Championship a month ago.
“I texted him,” Mickelson said. “It felt like it was a different time continuum, because I found myself pulling so hard for him. It was unusual. I find that I want him to play well, and I'm excited to see him play so well. And he is playing well.”
And Mickelson, 47, found himself wanting to play with Woods, 42, this week. He made it happen, setting it up when he saw Woods here on Monday.
They didn’t just play a practice round together on Tuesday. They teamed up, formidably, whipping Couples and Thomas Pieters in a match. Woods made two eagles, and Mickelson a batch of birdies. They were 7 under in a five-hole stretch on the back nine.
“It was very loud, very fun, and they hit some really good shots, wow,” Couples said.
Count Rory McIlroy among those surprised to see Woods and Mickelson together getting ready for the Masters.
“I walked past Tiger on the range and said, `I never thought I’d see the day,’” McIlroy said.
Mickelson relished the pairing. He looked as if he dressed up for the occasion, wearing a long-sleeve, button-down shirt.
“Only thing missing was a tie,” Woods cracked.
This isn’t to say Mickelson didn’t wrestle with the frustration Woods caused him over the years.
“It has been tough dealing with as much failure against him as I’ve had,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson never reached world No. 1, but he watched Woods reign there for 683 weeks.
Mickelson was never the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year, but he watched Woods win the honor 11 times.
Mickelson never won the PGA Tour money title, but he watched Woods win that 10 times, too.
Still, nobody had more great moments in Woods’ shadow.
Of the 43 PGA Tour titles on Mickelson’s resume, 34 of them came after Woods turned pro. All five of Mickelson’s majors came after Woods came along.
Woods was without equal in his run to greatness, but Mickelson can change that this week.
This is the one stage that is still true.
Here at the end of Magnolia Lane, amid all the dogwoods and azaleas, Mickelson can walk away at week’s end saying he was every bit Woods’ equal at Augusta National.
If Mickelson wins this week, he will do more than eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ record as the oldest Masters winner. He will claim his fourth green jacket, equaling the number Woods won here.
That victory last month at the WGC-Mexico Championship validated the work Mickelson has done, ending a nearly five-year winless spell.
“There were some difficult times and there were some challenges, but I always believed I would overcome them,” Mickelson said.