Tiger, Phil chasing more Masters history
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The saying goes that the Masters is a tradition unlike any other. But when it comes to slipping on Green Jackets, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have made a habit of it.
Between them, they have seven since 1997 -- nearly half that have been handed out over that period.
Entering the 77th edition, each seems poised to add another to the closet -- especially Woods, who quite frankly needs it more than Mickelson.
Six wins in his last 19 stroke-play events are nice, but majors are for history and Woods is all about history, dating all the way back to that first one here 16 years ago.
Yes, Tiger is back. A fifth Green Jacket would mean he’s all the way back, though.
It would be his first major victory in five years, his first Masters win in eight years and, most importantly, move him to within three of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 career major championships -- the number Tiger has been eyeing since he was a cub.
Three of Woods’ wins here came in his first six years as a pro. But he doesn’t want to be as dominant as he once was, he wants to be better. Will he? The answer will come this week with Woods installed as the prohibitive favorite for the first time in years.
“I feel very comfortable with where things are at,” he said. “I'm pleased at the progress I've made with (coach) Sean (Foley) and the things we've done. To go from where I went from at 58 in the world to get to where I'm at now, I'm pleased with the progress I've made. The wins have piled up the last couple years.”
Just not in majors, but you get the feeling that is about to change.
When Woods is happy off the course, he performs on it. Exhibit A: The comfortable-in-his-own-skin and comfortable-in-his-own-swing confidence he exudes, not to mention three wins in his four stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR this year.
“I think it's just a balance,” he said. “A balance in life, and I think that's what you're seeing.”
We’re also seeing a seismic shift in the balance of golf with Woods back in a position Rory McIlroy apparently only borrowed -- for now, anyway -- atop the Official World Golf Ranking.
Don’t take my word for it, though.
“I think everybody has the same thought on Tiger,” said Brandt Snedeker. “I'm sure he's going to be there. I think everybody has a complete idea of knowing he's probably playing the best golf in the world right now, hands down.”
Even Mickelson, Woods’ chief rival through all these years, can’t help but gush a little.
“Even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he's capable of, so you're always looking at his score,” he said. “And now that he's doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.”
What Woods sees in Augusta National is a familiar friend, much the same way Mickelson does.
Mickelson has three wins here in the last nine years and has had other opportunities, too. He also arrives having already won a tournament this year, nearly shooting a 59 in the process.
Yes, there’s been inconsistency in Mickelson’s game but when in his career hasn’t there been?
When Lefty won here in 2010, he came off a couple of middle-of-the-pack performances and hadn’t really contended anywhere at that point in the season.
Four years earlier, however, he arrived at Augusta National fresh off a victory at the nearby BellSouth Classic -- where he was 28 under for the week -- and carried that momentum to victory here.
In 2004, Mickelson played some of the best golf of his career and it led to that memorable 4-inch leap and his first Green Jacket.
Though his performances here or elsewhere have often not been the picture of perfection that Woods’ often have, there’s a certain irony that exists at Augusta National: As pristine as this place is, it doesn’t necessarily require perfection.
“I don't have to hit perfect shots to make pars,” Mickelson confessed. “There are a lot of holes here where I can make mistakes off the tee and with my short game I know I can recover. Knowing that, I relax, because I don't have to be perfect.
“It's not like the U.S. Open where if you make one little mistake, it's costing you one or two shots. I think that's what's exciting about Augusta National is the recovery shot. That's the most exciting shot in golf.”
Woods and Mickelson, meanwhile, are the two most exciting players of their generation. And the Masters remains the most exciting of the four majors with its annual barrage of birdies and roars that reverberate through the tall Georgia pines, even if it has been eight years since Woods last won here.
Asked what he would have thought at the Green Jacket ceremony in 2005 if someone said to him it would be this long before he won again, Woods paused momentarily.
“I wouldn’t have been happy with that,” he said.
Still, somehow he's managed to be a contender inside the ropes despite all he had going on outside them the last few years.
“The whole idea is to give myself opportunities,” Woods said “And as of right now, I'm tied for second on the all-time win list here, so that's not too bad, either.”
Of course, early in his career, Tiger once famously said, "Second place sucks." A lot has changed since then, but his mindset hasn’t.