The Players Championship: An early battle

Phil Mickelson reacts to hitting his tee shot into the water at No. 17 during a Tuesday practice round at The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Editor's note: For complete Players Championship coverage, check out our microsite dedicated to this week's tournament by clicking here.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Miserable drive pushed left. Even more miserable, it hit a tree and bounced straight down in rough. Most miserable of all, he had a nasty lie and a whopping 251 yards to the front of the green at the par 5 16th.

Hey, it was a practice round, right? Pick it up and toss it in the fairway, right?

Wrong.

It was a practice day, but this was no practice round. It was Tuesday, but it may as well have been Sunday with the Players Championship on the line. So Phil Mickelson settled over his shot and took a mighty swipe, trying his best to chase something down the fairway and toward the green.

And just what was consuming Mickelson’s attention on a quiet Tuesday at the Stadium Course? The fact that he and Jeff Overton were locked in a fierce match against Dustin Johnson and Steve Marino, that’s what. It was a rematch of a battle waged at Whistling Straits during last summer’s PGA Championship; Mickelson and Overton won that one, but if they were going to repeat, they were going to have to scramble because things were not good here at the 16th.

Oh, did we mention that a few dollars were at stake? Nothing that would match this week’s purse, mind you, but surely this was not a $5 Nassau.

“Guys just don’t do this anymore,” said Butch Harmon, walking along to keep tabs on two of his guys, Mickelson and Johnson. “But this is good. You get to work on what you’re going to face in competition.”

Having been 2 up when Overton birdied the par 5 11th, Mickelson’s team was now in full hang-on mode. Marino had birdied the 12th to get one hole back and now here at the 16th, Johnson was the only one to reach the green in two. That pretty much put the pressure squarely on Overton, for after carving a second shot out of that nasty lie, Mickelson left his third shot short of the green and wasn’t in position to make birdie.

From a greenside pot bunker, Overton hit a terrific shot to 8 feet. But with Johnson already in for birdie, Overton could not convert, so the match was all square.

“It keeps everything fun, makes you grind and hit some golf shots,” Johnson said.

The tall and lanky one from Myrtle Beach did just that at the 17th, his wedge to the island green coming to rest some 20 feet behind the hole. Marino then went long and into the water. Mickelson followed with a similar shot, much to his dismay. And that left things on Overton’s shoulders, which is why on a quiet Tuesday practice round he backed off his tee shot not once, but twice, before also finding the putting surface.

Clutch stuff, eh?

“Hey, we don’t play a lot of team golf,” Overton said, “so it’s fun to do this, to get together and talk some smack.”

Chances are, you couldn’t have found this sort of action anywhere else at the Stadium Course. That’s because the business attitude has blanketed the tour, so many players following a ritual and a blueprint that calls for workout regimens, practice range time, couch work with the shrink, and appointments with the short-game coach, the putting coach, the full swing coach, the hybrid coach.

“But what these guys are doing,” Harmon said, “is what guys used to do all the time.”

Only thing is, with outrageous sums of money available, players don’t need the cash games like they once did, which is why guys such as Mickelson, Overton, Johnson, and Marino gravitate to one another. With Mark Calcavecchia on the Champions Tour, John Huston rarely in action, Paul Azinger somewhere riding his motorcycle, and John Daly more about selling merchandise out of his motor home than reviving his game, there are fewer and fewer candidates around to have matches like what Mickelson & Co. had at Whistling Straits at last summer’s PGA Champship. On that day, Overton matched Johnson’s birdie at the 17th to keep the match even and Mickelson birdied 18 to win.

The rematch was scheduled for Augusta, only rain washed it out. So it was agreed by all that early Tuesday of Players Championship week they’d gather at the first tee to continue the fun.

Fun, of course, being a relative term when competitive juices are flowing. At the par 5 11th hole, for instance, Overton missed the green to the left with his second shot and discovered casual water. He marked, inspected his options for so long, that Marino finally walked over.

“What’s going on? I’ve got to check on you,” Marino said.

At the par 3 13th, Mickelson was short of the green and pitched to 4 feet, then marked his ball. Conferring with Overton over a sliding 12 foot putt, Mickelson saw it moving to the left, his partner agreed, then rolled it. But he played far too much break and when it did move left, it took a slope, and rode hard down into a bowl some 40 feet away.

“Not quite that much,” Mickelson said, shaking his head.

No such problems at the 17th, because Overton cooly two-putted the island green to match Johnson, sending the competition to the 18th hole.

If you’re thinking the scenario was gift-wrapped for Mickelson, you’re right. He drove through the fairway and came to rest beneath a small tree. But after Johnson went long and Overton was short with easier shots, Mickelson did what Mickelson does best – created some magic. He hit a hard, low shot that hit short of the green and almost on cue from his urging it to “hop up there,” the ball did just that, then rolled right of the hole, turned left, and came to rest 12 feet away.

Johnson missed his birdie try, Overton covered that par, and no matter that it was just a practice round, Mickelson had the stage to himself.

And made the putt?

“Of course,” Johnson said, shaking his head.

So, it was sort of a repeat of Whistling Straits, eh, with Mickelson making birdie at the final hole to win?

“Let’s not talk about that,” Marino said.

But on a sultry practice day with so little going on, it was the only stuff worth talking about.

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Editor's note: For complete Players Championship coverage, check out our microsite dedicated to this week's tournament by clicking here.

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