As soon as the perfect of enemies, Mickelson and Woods have discovered a respect, even a bond, of their twilight

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Simply previous 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, on the sort of morning the powers who run Augusta Nationwide Golf Membership appear to have the ability to summon exactly when they need it, Tiger Woods, the Masters champion in 1997 and 2001 and 2002 and 2005, arrived on the 10th tee field. Awaiting him there have been Phil Mickelson, who received right here in 2004 and 2006 and 2010; Fred {Couples}, the 1992 champion; and Thomas Pieters, a gifted Belgian who simply would possibly host a champions’ dinner sooner or later.

“It’s 4, three, one,” Mickelson stated, and he nodded on the gamers so as of their Masters titles, Pieters the leper within the group. Woods would begin this nine-hole apply spherical — a nine-hole apply spherical that may have appeared inconceivable a decade in the past — with the honours.

“It’s a respect factor,” Mickelson stated later.

Do two issues, concurrently: Marvel at that scene and that assertion, Mickelson and Woods collectively for a apply spherical at Augusta, with an underlying theme of respect and camaraderie and enjoyable. And watch out, as a result of every of those characters — central as they’re to the sport of golf as an entire, central as they’re to what may very well be an enthralling Masters forward — solely permits us in to the sides of their lives, their emotions, how they suppose and work and relate.

Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods paired themselves in a workforce in opposition to Fred {Couples} and Thomas Pieters throughout a nine-hole apply spherical Tuesday in preparation for the 2018 Masters. Jamie Squire / Getty Photographs

However even with warning in thoughts, there was no escaping the theme to at the present time. Tiger and Phil, on an ideal Augusta morning, taking part in a superbly pleasant warmup spherical for a Masters through which they each hope to — no, anticipate to — contend. A dozen years in the past, they swapped the function of placing the inexperienced jacket on the opposite, Mickelson anointing Woods in 2005, Woods dressing Mickelson the next yr. All of it appeared a clumsy dance stuffed with pressured smiles. They have been the 2 greatest gamers within the recreation, and if there wasn’t real animus, there was additionally little heat. They have been completely different individuals, one another’s chief adversary, rivals who have been taking part in not just for their sport’s best prizes, however for spots in historical past.

Time, although, can change circumstances, and possibly even change individuals. So the sport Tuesday morning wasn’t Tiger vs. Phil. It was Tiger and Phil collectively, taking up {Couples} and Pieters. And when you suppose it’s simply us, on the surface, who consider this as an odd pairing — properly, it’s not. Later Tuesday, Woods walked by Rory McIlroy, the four-time main champion, on the apply vary.

“I stated, ‘I by no means thought I’d see the day,’” McIlroy stated. “‘Tiger and Phil taking part in a apply spherical at Augusta.’”

What a day, then. It meant nothing for the event to comply with. However it means one thing for golf. It’s no exaggeration to say that at every gap the group performed across the again 9, hundreds of individuals craned necks and scrambled for place as if this was the event itself, not a quiet, nine-hole match. On a Tuesday morning, these have been Sunday night galleries.

“Appeared like there have been lots of people,” Mickelson deadpanned afterward. “They appeared fairly excited.”

And why not? We’ll by no means know precisely how Mickelson and Woods felt about one another after they have been of their 20s and 30s, these instances they entered every main as co-favorites. Then, they have been pressured to reply questions on one another — Mickelson about Woods, specifically — when every was consumed solely with bettering himself.

However it’s additionally not possible to not acknowledge Tuesday as one thing of a transition, a public acknowledgment that their relationship has developed and matured.

Take Phil, on Tiger:

“No person respects and appreciates what he’s performed for the sport extra as a result of no one’s benefited from what he’s performed for the sport of golf greater than I’ve,” Mickelson stated. “I’ve all the time had that appreciation and respect for him.”

Now Tiger, on Phil:

“You see the probabilities he’s taken through the years,” Woods stated. “The explanation why he does that’s as a result of he is aware of he can do it and he has that perception. And that’s what has separated him. That’s why he’s received so many tournaments. That’s why he’s received so many main championships, is that he really believes he can pull it off.”

These sentiments, that heat, possibly it existed a decade in the past. If that’s the case, it by no means surfaced like this. The reality is, Woods and Mickelson sought one another out for Tuesday’s apply spherical. They may have performed with anybody. They performed with one another.

Phil Mickelson, left, and Tiger Woods stroll over the Hogan Bridge throughout their apply spherical Tuesday on the 2018 Masters. Andrew Redington / Getty Photographs

That is guesswork, to a level, but it surely appears sure a few issues occurred to those two alongside the way in which. Woods has handled real adversity, each self-inflicted private travails and debilitating harm, and his absence first from competition after which from golf altogether made those that have been left competing — get this — miss him. Mickelson’s struggles have been extra refined, however as soon as he received the newest of his 5 majors, the 2013 British Open, he went almost 5 years with out successful once more, battling his placing stroke to the purpose when he needed to rebuild it.

As they crept into their 40s, one not had the opposite as a foil. They solely had doubts about whether or not every might return to prominence. Competitors was changed by, of all issues, compassion. When Woods’s brittle again left him unable to compete on current Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup groups, turning him from participant to assistant captain, they began to see one another in another way.

“Phil was nice,” Woods stated. “He was making an attempt to assist me out after I was making an attempt to make a comeback. My physique wasn’t feeling superb.”

Mickelson’s response, based on Woods: “How can I assist?”

Mickelson’s drought ended the primary weekend of March with a formidable victory in Mexico. The very subsequent week, Woods’s comeback from his newest again surgical procedure appeared full when he contended in Tampa, going through a putt on the 72nd gap to power a playoff. That week, Woods acquired the strangest little bit of encouragement: a textual content from Mickelson, who was sitting out.

“It felt prefer it was a unique time continuum as a result of I discovered myself pulling so exhausting for him,” Mickelson stated. “It was uncommon. And I discover that I need him to play properly, and I’m excited to see him play so properly.”

Of their match in opposition to {Couples} and Pieters, they misplaced the primary two holes — after which flogged them. Woods poured in an eagle putt on the par-5 13th, then hit a second-shot strategy on the par-5 15th that appeared classic, his second eagle in three holes. Mickelson birdied 16 and 17. Woods, whose resurgent club-head velocity is outstanding given all of the surgical procedures, bombed the ball. Mickelson, whose creativity and self-belief are his best attributes, placed on a flop-shot clinic from behind the 15th inexperienced, holing one with a 64-degree wedge.

“Simply foolish,” Woods stated.

They have been, greater than something, comfortable. Possibly it is sensible. Woods is 42. Mickelson is 47. They’re totally shaped as public figures. Their accomplishments and foibles have been uncovered. No matter state of affairs arises this week, they’ve confronted it earlier than. Possibly, simply possibly, they’re even self-aware.

“We’re on the tail finish of our careers,” Woods stated. “We each know that. … Now we have had an ideal 20-year battle. Hopefully we’ll have a number of extra.”

A number of extra? What about simply this week? “They might be paired collectively on Sunday,” {Couples} stated.

If solely. This Masters is promising due to the record of characters poised to contend. None are extra outstanding than the 2 40-somethings with seven inexperienced jackets and 19 main championships between them. Wouldn’t or not it’s cool if the others ceded the stage to those two, yet another time? It’s a respect factor.

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