Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson talk rivalry, friendship after practice round together

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods could only smile and shake his head in amazement as he watched Phil Mickelson hit flop shots from behind the 15th green, including one that trickled into the cup, during a practice round at Augusta National on Tuesday.

The fact that they were playing together was surprising enough. To then hear Woods heap praise on Mickelson was perhaps yet another sign that we are seeing a different Tiger as he returns to the Masters for the first time in three years after a long injury layoff.

"He's very, very competitive; he's feisty, he's determined," Woods said Tuesday during a media session following his practice round. "He always wants to win. It has served him well. He believes in himself an awful lot. And you see the chances he's taken over the years; the reason why he does that is because he knows he can do it and he has that belief.

"And that's what has happened. That's why he's won so many tournaments, that's why he's won so many major championships, is that he truly believes he can pull it off. That's what you have to have. You have to have that belief."

Mickelson, 47, Woods, 42, Fred Couples, 58, and Thomas Pieters, 26, played the back nine at Augusta National, an impromptu practice round set up on Monday. It is believed to be the first time Woods and Mickelson played a practice round other than during one of the team events in 20 years. Woods and Mickelson were partners, and Woods intimated that they might have pocketed any money made from wagers.

Even Rory McIlroy noticed, quipping to Woods on the driving range, "I never thought I'd see the day ..."

Their rivalry spans more than two decades, and at times there was friction, most attributed to Woods' own competitiveness.

"Nobody respects and appreciates what he's done for the game more than me," said Mickelson, who partnered with Woods during the practice round and noted that along with Woods' eagles at the 13th and 15th holes, the duo went 7 under par on a 5-hole stretch.

And, perhaps a bit surprisingly, Mickelson acknowledged how he's been pulling for Woods in his comeback from multiple back surgeries.

"I texted him a while ago when he was playing at Valspar [where Woods tied for second last month]. ... It was like a different time continuum," Mickelson said. "I felt myself pulling so hard for him. It was unusual. I want him to play well. I am excited to see him play so well. And he is playing well."

Woods acknowledged a respect for Mickelson as time passed, and their time together on various U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams -- especially the past two years, when Woods served as an assistant captain.

Both players enter the 82nd Masters Tournament in good form and considered among the favorites. "I think you'll see both Tiger and Phil have a very, very, very good week," Couples said.

Woods said this is the best he's felt in "seven or eight years," which predates his nine-victory worldwide run from 2011 to 2013 as well as the four back surgeries he's had since 2014, causing him to miss three of the past four Masters.

But he comes into the tournament off of top-5 finishes in his past two events, including the Valspar Championship, where he missed a playoff by 1 stroke.

Woods said his ability to swing a club at high speeds has been a surprise.

"I'll be honest with you, it's crazy," Woods said. "I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that's pretty much it. I'll have a nice, comfortable, and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to speedwise, just there's no way, lower-back fusion.

"But for some reason, I don't have any pain. Yes, I'm much tighter, but I don't have any pain. And I've had to really work on the strength and different ways. For some reason it's come back. I wish I could tell you, I wish I knew, but all of a sudden I have this pop, and my body and my speed's back and my timing."

Mickelson, who is ranked 18th in the world, won the WGC-Mexico Championship last month, his first victory in nearly five years. He has three other top-six finishes.