Phil Mickelson watches Tiger Woods play his tee shot on the 12th hole during a practice round for the Masters on April 3, 2018, at Augusta National.

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Liguori: Once Intense Rivals, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson Are Now Buddies

Rivals Express Admiration For Each Other Before Masters

Ann Liguori
April 04, 2018 - 3:24 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Some are referring to it as a "bromance" -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. That may be a stretch, but they’ve forged a friendship that can certainly be described as mutual admiration.

That wasn’t always the case. In fact, when the two were competing over the last 20 years, they not only barely spoke to each other, they tried to avoid each other.  

Fast forward to now. Woods is 42 years old and feeling better physically than he has for "seven to eight years," experiencing a new lease on life. After undergoing his latest back surgery, he is, as he put it, "a walking miracle." And Mickelson, 47, is coming off his first win in five years at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship.

Woods owns four green jackets; Mickelson has won three. They both are fathers. They both have experienced physical pain – Woods has had four back surgeries in the past three years, Mickelson was diagnosed in 2010 with psoriatic arthritis, a painful condition in which joints swell, although it didn’t prevent him from playing as Woods' back condition did. Woods has missed three of the last four Masters because of it.

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The two played nine holes together Tuesday morning at Augusta National against Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters and shot 7-under par in a five-hole stretch, according to Mickelson. Woods eagled holes 13 and 15; Mickelson had a few birdies.

And afterward in their news conferences, they couldn’t say enough positives about each other.

“I think that nobody respects and appreciates what he's done for the game more because nobody's benefited from what he's done for the game of golf more than I have,” Mickelson said of Woods. “I've always had that appreciation and respect for him. To see him back out playing is incredible. We all feel that. 

"I texted him a while ago when he was playing at Valspar that it felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him," added Mickelson, who will compete, along with Woods, at the Masters starting Thursday. "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.”

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Mickelson pointed to the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, when he played and Woods was an assistant captain, as a turning point in their relationship.

“We have always had a respect and an appreciation for each other, but I believe coming together to work together for a common goal of having success in the Ryder Cup has brought us closer together, and it started about 2 1/2, three years ago," Mickelson said. "I feel (that was) kind of the turning point as we were getting ready for Hazeltine and preparing for that. Coming up with a game plan, we were talking almost on a daily basis, and I thought that that was kind of the impetus where we really started to work well together. And there's nothing that brings you closer than working together on a common goal like that.

“When he was going through a tough time,” Mickelson continued, “I wanted to do whatever I could to help out, because oftentimes that's when people aren't there. And I wanted to do whatever I could during a tough time, not just the good, because I've reaped the rewards during the good times, and I'm very appreciative of what he's done for me, my family, the game of golf."

Mickelson said golfers of their generation don't have to look farther than their bank accounts to see the impact Woods had in the 1990s and 2000s.

“Before he came along ... I remember winning the Tucson Open in 1991, and the entire purse was a million dollars," Mickelson recalled. "And I used to wonder if we would ever have a first-place check of a million dollars. He comes along, and the rate of growth was exponential. We were playing for now almost $2 million. And we have been playing for a million every week.  I didn't know that would happen in my career, and he's made that happen. Not to mention, the increased exposure, bringing golf to the front page, the television ratings, the opportunities off the golf course, all of these things -- he has exponentially grown the game of golf."

When asked to describe his relationship with Mickelson, Woods said: “We have been through it for so long, and we have been together on these teams long enough, and then when I got hurt and I had to take a different role on the teams, being assistant captain and really trying to help out on the side how best I possibly could, Phil was great. He was trying to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback, my body wasn't feeling very good. (He'd ask) 'How can I help?'

"And our friendship has gotten stronger over the years. We have competed a lot of times coming down the stretch in events. We were joking today about some of the thoughts that transpired here. We have gone through it a long time, and the better part of 20 years our friendship has certainly gotten a lot better.

"And I think it's just age as well. We're at the tail end of our careers, we both know that. He's 47, I believe, and I'm 42, and we have had a great 20‑year battle. 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. And that was then, and certainly this is now.”

It's great to see. After all, in the future, they’ll probably be hitting the honorary tee shots on the Thursday to start the Masters, just like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Those three legends grew very fond of each other. And history often finds a way of repeating itself.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori