The Masters: Tiger, Phil was a great warmup act

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 13, 2009

By Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. ó They battled each other as though no one else was playing, and for many of those lucky enough to be at Augusta National on Easter Sunday, no one else was. Every shot seemed to spark a new roar echoing through the Georgia pines, and every birdie brought new hope that this might be the most magical Masters of them all.
Phil Mickelson started it, but Tiger Woods wasn’t about to let him finish it by himself.
Not with the green jacket still up for grabs. Not with Augusta National just begging to be taken.
Not with what this, the most personal of duels, meant to both men.
The record will reflect that Angel Cabrera won this Masters and the coveted green jacket that goes along with it. But anyone watching will tell you that Tiger and Phil stole the show.
The fans who streamed out of Augusta National by the hundreds even as the leaders played the back nine certainly thought so. They could have stuck around for what eventually became the first three-way playoff in 22 years, but there didn’t seem much point after the thrills Woods and Mickelson provided.
They were the dream pairing, and they delivered more than anyone could have imagined. For the best part of four hours they gave us the kind of moments that Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry can’t deliver in their entire career.
The patrons, as they call them here, responded by screaming in joy, high-fiving one another, and acting in very unpatronlike ways. Straining to get in on the action, they even ran from hole to hole, the most taboo of all the no-nos at the Masters.
They all wanted in on this action, and who could blame them. Mickelson stoked their fire by making birdies from everywhere imaginable on the front nine, and by the time Woods rolled in an eagle putt on No. 8, the game was really on.
Behind them somewhere, Cabrera and Perry were playing in the final group and their nerves were beginning to show. Ahead of them was a back nine filled with tantalizing possibilities of birdies, eagles, and even more.
How good was this? Just ask one of the men on the inside.
“It was the most fun I ever had on a golf course,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie.
The fact that there is an undercurrent of bad blood between the two men simply added to the intrigue on this gorgeous spring day. Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams, said a few months earlier that he hated Mickelson, and the two players aren’t exactly dinner companions.
But this was a day for spectacular golf, not pettiness. And while they weren’t trading jokes inside the ropes, there was some back and forth.
“Great shot,” Woods kept saying to Mickelson.
“Back to you,” Mickelson said to Woods.
Mickelson set the bar high with six birdies in a seven-hole stretch on the front nine, including a miraculous shot through the trees on No. 7 that finished in kick-in range. He tied the front nine record with a 30 and stood on the 12th tee with a 9-iron in his hand, suddenly just a stroke off the lead.
Being Mickelson, of course, he promptly hit it in the water.
Most players would have collapsed right there. But Mickelson has been in a few jams in his time, and soon the game was back on.
Both players were closing in on the lead but still desperate for more birdies. And both had great chances for eagles on the two par-5’s on the back nine, only to miss.
Mickelson’s miss on No. 15 hurt the most. After watching Woods knock it to 15 feet he stuck it to just 4 feet and had an eagle putt to take the lead.
It didn’t come close.
“I just didn’t trust the read and made a very tentative stroke,” Mickelson said. “If I had eagled 15 I’m right back in the tournament.”
The finish was anti-climatic because by then the two seemed spent. Woods bogeyed the last two holes, and Mickelson missed a short birdie on the 17th and made bogey on the final hole himself.
They would have needed 64s to get in the playoff, and Mickelson ended with a 67 and Woods a 68.
But what a blast it was while it lasted.
“The front nine was awesome. It was really fun,” Mickelson said. “It was fun to have a chance on the back nine. I think that’s what we always want as players.”
Woods usually wants a little more, and that might account for the scowl on his face as he walked out of the scoring hut off the 18th green where wife, Elin was waiting, dressed appropriately in a red sweater. He hasn’t won here in four years now, his longest drought at the Masters, and at times his frustration showed.
He hit it terrible on the driving range, and even worse on the first hole when his tee shot went way left into the ninth fairway. He was in danger of being trampled by Mickelson, being overrun by the rest of the field, and getting his ego bruised all at the same time.
But somehow he managed to come to the 17th tee with a slim chance to do the unthinkable.
“I fought my swing all day and just kind of Band-Aided around and almost won the tournament with a Band-Aid swing today,” Woods said.
Woods didn’t stick around to analyze it much further. He was finished, and in no mood to watch anyone else finish.
Mickelson lingered a little longer, getting a hug and kiss from wife Amy underneath the huge tree on the clubhouse lawn. Soon, too, he was gone, leaving only with thoughts of what might have been.
They came to win, and they came up short. Someone else would wear the green jacket.
But as a warmup act they couldn’t be beat.