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'This is now': How times have changed for Tiger, Phil

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the 2018 Masters.
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – At 8:50 a.m. Tuesday, with the sun just starting to peek through the Georgia pines, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson marched all the way back to the 11th tee together. A group of about 100 fans eagerly awaited their arrival, cameras ready.

“Take a picture,” an elderly spectator whispered to his friend. “I never thought I’d see this.”

Woods and Mickelson hadn’t played a tournament practice round together in 20 years, since the 1998 Nissan Open in Los Angeles, since Mickelson reportedly won the money match and then left photos and a note in Woods’ locker, joking about the Benjamins he’d taken off of him. Woods apparently didn’t appreciate the gag.

Neither superstar could have imagined the two decades that would follow – the dozens of titles, and the scandals, and the health concerns. And yet none of that seemed to matter on a sun-drenched morning at Augusta National, as Woods and Mickelson toured the back nine in front of packed grandstands - two aging warriors as popular, relevant, friendly and competitive as ever.

That alone seemed inconceivable at this time last year.

Mickelson was nearly four years removed from his last victory, fighting his driver and trying to maintain his energy and concentration for 72 holes. Woods would have loved those problems. Arriving at Augusta without his clubs for the second consecutive year, he endured shooting pain down his leg at the Champions Dinner. A few weeks later, he underwent a last-ditch fusion surgery to try and salvage his quality of life. Saving his career was a bonus.

“There were some really dark times,” he said.

And now?

Mickelson steamrolls into Augusta with his confidence as high as it’s ever been. He posted four consecutive top-6 finishes on Tour for the first time in his career, then capped off that run with a slump-busting victory in Mexico, in a World Golf Championship event, after outdueling the hottest player in the world, Justin Thomas.

In 1986, when Jack Nicklaus turned back the clock and took the Masters at age 46, it was a historic achievement that defied the odds and suspended belief. A Mickelson victory this week wouldn’t engender the same emotions. Not even close. Few would be surprised if he slipped into a fourth green jacket – not just because players’ careers are longer these days, thanks to better fitness and equipment, but because of Mickelson’s quality of play lately.    

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“Once I finally did break through and win, I’m going to peel off quite a few more,” he said. “So I’ve just had the first one, and it’s time to start peeling off a few more.”

Woods roars into Augusta pain-free and with a startling amount of power and speed. During the Valspar Championship, one of the Trackman computers clocked his swing speed at 129 mph – the highest mark on Tour this season – which led him to later remark that he’s a “walking miracle.”

“Some things never change,” Mickelson joked. “I can’t keep up with him.”

Their notoriously frosty relationship has thawed in recent years, since Woods has been out, since he has expressed a desire to be involved with the U.S. Ryder Cup team. In the run-up to the matches at Hazeltine, Mickelson said that he and Woods talked on an everyday basis. Players on that squad mentioned how the game’s two biggest stars laughed and swapped stories, putting aside a two-decade rivalry for the good of the team. The rest of the Americans followed their lead, snapping a three-match losing streak, then dominating the Presidents Cup last fall.

That chumminess has trickled down into tournament play, too. After Woods’ runner-up finish in Tampa, Mickelson texted him encouragement. “It felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him,” Mickelson said. “It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well. And he is playing well.”

There was no elaborate story behind their practice-round grouping Tuesday, a surprising partnership that dominated the early-week discussion here at the Masters. Mickelson merely bumped into Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, on Monday and asked if they were free for a game. Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters joined the group, and that was unfortunate for them, because the Woods-Mickelson pairing played a five-hole stretch on the back nine in 7 under.

Rory McIlroy saw Woods on the range afterward and said, with a smile: “Never thought I’d see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.”

Woods laughed, but he recognizes not just their evolving relationship, but also their place in today’s game.

“We’re at the tail end of our careers – we both know that,” he said. “We have had a great 20-year battle, and hopefully we’ll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1. That was then, and certainly this is now.”

Now is a chance for Woods to author one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.

Now is a chance for Mickelson to become the oldest Masters champion, and to tie Woods with four green jackets.

And now is a chance for both players to take it to the young studs who have dominated the game, to remind them that their time hasn’t expired just yet.

Tuesday might not be the last time they see each other, either.

“They may be paired together on Sunday,” Couples said.

Everyone would snap a picture of that.