Golf

Masters wish: Tiger-Phil finale

Shake were stirred
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have combined for seven Masters titles.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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AUGUSTA, Ga.

For me, Christmas comes in April and lasts a week.

It begins Monday, when I’ll walk through the gates of golf’s magic kingdom like a wide-eyed child at Disneyland to discover again that time can, indeed, stand still and that there is beauty in this world that never fades.

And it ends seven days later, when I’ll leave the greatest office a man could ever know wondering how time could have passed so quickly.

For a while in the noughties, former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson with his Tiger-proofing obsession and Mother Nature conspired to put coal in my stocking, turning my favorite tournament into a dour test of survival, an April US Open that never fit the motif of what Bobby Jones envisioned in 1934.

But new chairman Billy Payne and his Young Turks have restored my faith in springtime Christmases, which are now more like my first Masters, in 1996, when Nick Faldo — too ably assisted by Greg Norman — turned a coronation into a crucifixion.

This decade so far has seen Phil Mickelson winning his third green jacket, Charl Schwartzel’s breathtaking four-birdie finish and Bubba Watson’s miraculous hooked wedge to win in a playoff — ample evidence that the Masters is once again the most exciting week in golf.

But this year, I’m pushing the envelope and, taking a leaf from my sons’ book, asking Santa for more.

PICK YOUR POSIN'

Relive each of Tiger Woods' performances at the Masters.

I figure the Big Fella doesn’t have much going on, so what I really want is for Tiger and Phil to battle down the stretch on Sunday afternoon.

And I know I’m not the only one.

“People always ask me who are my favorites to win the Masters,” says Butch Harmon, who coached Woods at his zenith and is now in Mickelson’s corner.

“I always tell them, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and they say, ‘Well, what about this guy or that guy?’ And, with all due respect to all those other great players out there, Tiger and Phil have won seven (green jackets between them), so I’ll take them every time.

“But the two of them going head-to-head, that would be something special.”

Woods and Mickelson are this generation’s Jack and Arnie.

Like Nicklaus — the man whose mark of 18 majors he stalks — Woods is all business on the course and has the bigger resume but, like Palmer, Mickelson, with his smile and go-for-broke style, has won more hearts.

The great pity is that Woods and Mickelson haven’t crossed swords more often at the pointy end of majors.

They stole the show on the final day of the 2009 Masters, Mickelson making birdie on six of the first eight holes, Woods firing five birdies and a spectacular eagle on the par-5 eighth.

But in truth they began the round too far back and ran out of steam on the back nine, allowing Angel Cabrera to prevail in a bumbling playoff over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell.

This, however, could be the year.

Woods, certainly, is the deserved favorite.

He has won three times already this season and is ominously talking about not just resuming his chase of the Nicklaus record, but getting to 20 majors.

Of course, he’ll have to get to 15 first.

He has been stuck on 14 since June 2008, 17 months before the scandal that precipitated the darkest — and most barren — two years of his career.

There are those who will point to the fact Woods won three times on the PGA Tour last year, too, but was unable to hold his nerve on the weekends at three of the majors. At the Masters, he started with two wickedly pull-hooked drives and never recovered, stumbling to a career-worst finish of 40th.

But Harmon sees a different Woods this year.

“I think he’s still maybe not 100 percent confident with the driver, but he’s putting like Tiger Woods again, his short game’s sharp and right now he’s the best iron player in the game,” he says.

“You see what he does on courses that he likes.”

Hunter Mahan, one of the few Friends of Phil who’s also close to Woods, declared that the new world No. 1 is “the man once again … better than everybody else.”

Mickelson, though, isn’t so convinced.

He, too, has won on the PGA Tour this year — blitzing the field at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix — and is rounding into form, putting together two good rounds on the weekend at the Shell Houston Open.

“He played very well in Houston, but more than any other player, it really doesn’t matter how he’s playing, when Phil gets to Augusta, he’s a different player,” Harmon says.

“It gets his juices flowing. He’s just very comfortable around that course.”

Harmon points out that Woods hasn’t won a green jacket since 2005, while Mickelson has won three in the past eight years.

“I don’t think there’s a course that suits Phil better because he’s got that little fade, that slider, he can hit off the tee, which is a lot easier to control that a right-hander having to hit a draw,” says Harmon.

“And to me what really separates Phil is that he can chip off those tight lies around the greens. I mean, if there’s a secret to Augusta, it’s having great touch around the greens, and Phil’s certainly got that.”

What also makes the Tiger-Phil narrative compelling is the fact that they’re not exactly friends.

“Two totally different personalities,” Mahan says.

Tensions between them predate even Mickelson’s ill-advised quip that only Woods was good enough to win with Nike’s “inferior equipment.”

Once, at the Masters, when Mickelson watched his rival hit a 3-wood past his driver, he asked Woods if he always hit fairway woods so far.

“No,” said Woods, pulling his tee from the ground before marching down the fairway, “Sometimes further.”

In truth, their cold war has thawed in recent years, helped by the fact that Steve Williams — who once publicly called Mickelson a “prick” — has been replaced on Woods’ bag by Joe LaCava, who’s friendly with Mickelson and his caddie, Jim Mackay.

But it’s not just the dynamic between them that has changed, it’s the fact that Mickelson has had Woods’ number over the past six years, most memorably when they went head-to-head in the final round of last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

“I feel like he brings the best out of me,” Mickelson says.

Not coincidentally, Mickelson started playing better when paired with Woods after he hired Harmon as his coach. Harmon offers a wry smile when pressed on the details.

“Let’s just say that Phil feels more comfortable than he used to when they play together,” says Harmon.

That’s it?

“OK,” Harmon says, “You could say he loves it.”

“But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only would Tiger and Phil going head-to-head on Sunday be the ultimate for the fans, but for them, too.

“I know them well enough to say that they would both love nothing more.”

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo

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