AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson once staged a duel in the sun that felt a wee bit like the epic one between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry. No, the 2005 Ford Championship at Doral was not exactly the 1977 Open Championship, and no, the loser in '05 (Mickelson) did not deliver the memorable concession speech made by the loser in '77 (Nicklaus).
But to the surprise of many, on their way to shooting a combined 47 under par in Tiger's 1-stroke victory, Woods and Mickelson shared something that defined the Nicklaus-Watson rivalry: respect. Just after Mickelson hit one in close in the late rounds of the fight, Woods shouted at him above the din of the raucous crowd.
"Great f---ing shot, Phil."
Someone within earshot of the compliment, and within a short par-3 of the sometimes stormy Tiger-Phil dynamic, supplied the anecdote to explain that the two never truly hated each other, and that Woods was beginning to see a fire in Mickelson that wasn't there when Lefty was making himself a punch line in the majors.
And nine years later, on the 10th anniversary of Mickelson's breakthrough victory at Augusta National, look at what we have here: Phil showing up to throw a pity party for the injured Tiger, while also taking dead aim on Woods' Masters legacy.
Asked if his five major titles have him sizing up Lee Trevino (six) and Arnold Palmer (seven) on the ladder of historical greats, Mickelson said, "Not really. But I do know Arnold and Tiger have four [green] jackets and I have three. I know Jack has six, but nothing I can do about that right now. I'm just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are."
Woods has to appreciate that. In fact, while he's passing the time after back surgery, Woods might want to ask himself if he's ready to give his primary rival his unmitigated respect, if only for this reason:
Phil has surely earned it.
Consider where Mickelson was in April 2004, his record in the four big ones a big, fat 0-for-46. Two years earlier, with the pressure mounting to hand that Best Player To Have Never Won a Major burden to someone else, Mickelson threw up his hands in surrender after Woods won his third Masters title.
Phil explained that he'd just seen the "The Rookie," the film about Jim Morris, the high school teacher and coach who became a big league pitcher at age 35, and that he decided (like Dennis Quaid's Morris) he was just lucky to be playing a game he loved.
It was Mickelson's way of saying he was just happy to be there, a name on the Masters leaderboard 4 shots south of Tiger's. Truth was, Lefty was hopelessly lost. If Woods saw him then as a goofy gambler who lacked the mental fortitude to close when it mattered most, well, he was hardly alone.
Mickelson admitted that the pressure to end the drought was immense, but that once he made that putt on the 72nd hole in 2004, he knew he would win again. And since the start of the 2005 PGA Championship, site of his next conquest, Lefty has won the same number of majors (four) as Tiger has won over that same span.
Mr. 0-for-46 has become Mr. 5-for-39. When Mickelson won the Open Championship at Muirfield last summer, he didn't feel the relief he felt at Augusta in '04, the relief of a condemned man suddenly pardoned at the 11th hour. Instead, he felt joy. The high of a 43-year-old athlete who knows nobody -- Woods included -- can ever again suggest he's wasting any of his considerable talent.
Tiger was the elephant in Phil's room Tuesday, exactly how Mickelson wanted it. In an unsolicited love letter to Woods, Lefty went on about how much the sport suffers when the terminator in red is on the DL.
"Yeah, it's disappointing," Mickelson said. "It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it? He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It's awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon."
"I mean, I hope he's back for the other majors," Mickelson continued. "And as much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win."
Mickelson was later asked if it was good for golf to have a transcendent figure the likes of LeBron James and Peyton Manning.
"Are you implying to have Tiger to be that transcendent figure?" he said. "Absolutely it's important. Look what he's done for the game the last 17 years he's played as a professional. It's been incredible. I've told him, 'Nobody has benefited more from having Tiger in the game than myself.' ... It's unbelievable what has happened with the growth of this game.
"And Tiger has been the instigator. He's the one that's really propelled and driven the bus because he's brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest ...That's why we miss him so much."
In the middle of this Tiger tribute, Mickelson told of how he won in Tucson in 1991 as an Arizona State student, and how he forfeited the $180,000 check (as an amateur) before wondering aloud to his college coach and caddie, Steve Loy, if pros would someday play for a million-dollar first prize.
"We were driving back to Phoenix," Loy recalled, "and when Phil asked that I said, 'Not in my lifetime.' I told Phil maybe it was time for him to go make some money, and he said, 'No, I love college and I told my parents I'd get my education. Besides, I'd have to pay my caddie.'"
Mickelson would ultimately win enough to pay his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, and to pay commissions to his business manager, Loy, who was asked Tuesday to estimate how much money he thinks Woods' presence since the 1990s has added to Mickelson's bank account.
"It's a tough question," Loy said. "Who's to say what Ford meant to GM, and what GM meant to Ford? Tiger has definitely added value in terms of sponsorships, but both have assisted one another and driven each other to a different level. Phil definitely got better as a player because of Tiger, there's no question about that."
In the end, after a wobbly start, Mickelson embraced the monumental challenge represented by perhaps the greatest player of all time. What Phil told the news media -- he wants Tiger healthy and in the field -- is what he's been telling his closest advisers for years.
Chances are, Woods will give his stubborn stamp of approval to that. Mickelson has earned Tiger's respect, and U.S. Open victory or no U.S. Open victory, that should give Lefty the career grand slam.