Tiger Woods in command, adds to Masters intrigue by teaming with Phil Mickelson

Apr 3, 2018; Augusta, GA, USA; Masters champion Tiger Woods on the driving range before his practice round for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National GC. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods in command, adds to Masters intrigue by teaming with Phil Mickelson

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods in command, adds to Masters intrigue by teaming with Phil Mickelson

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods was asked 26 questions during his pre-Masters press conference Tuesday, but he dodged perhaps the most interesting one.

He was asked if he believes, in retrospect, he was treated unfairly by the media eight years ago given the number of high-profile scandals in high places lately.

“Yeah, I’m really excited to play the Masters this week” Woods joked.

For the first time in a long time, Woods is in firm control of his own narrative. He’s glad to talk about the physical pain he endured prior to last year’s spinal fusion surgery. Any other type of pain that may have plagued him is not up for discussion right now.

Woods is only in control again because of his play. He said Tuesday it’s been seven or eight years since he felt this good. He charged through the Florida swing with three consecutive top-12 finishes, including a runner-up at the Valspar Championship.

It’s all led up to this, with Woods at full strength and ready for another run at the Masters. That starts Thursday with a 10:42 a.m. tee time alongside Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood.

“I really hope I’m playing my best golf,” Woods said. “This is a tournament I think where experience does help a lot. … There’s got to be some sort of certain part of my game that’s got to be on, and hopefully this will be one of those weeks.”

This is one of the most anticipated Masters of all time because Woods has been able to put the game together much quicker than expected. The anticipation grew Tuesday when Woods linked up with an unlikely partner for a practice round match – former Tour rival Phil Mickelson.

Seriously.

Woods said they grew more cordial over the past two years at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and that Mickelson offered to help however he could when Woods was struggling physically.

“We have gone through it a long time, and over the better part of 20 years our friendship has certainly gotten a lot better,” Woods said. “I think it’s just age as well. We’re at the tail end of our careers. We both know that. He’s 47 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. That was then and certainly this is now.”

Mickelson approached Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, on Monday and asked if Woods would be up for a game. He agreed, and the two teamed up against 26-year-old Thomas Pieters and 58-year-old Fred Couples for nine holes early Tuesday morning.

“To see him back out playing is incredible,” Mickelson said. “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. It was unusual. And I find that I want him to play well, and I’m excited to see him play so well.”

He was even more excited Tuesday because they dusted Couples and Pieters, at one point playing a five-hole stretch 7 under thanks to two eagles from Woods. And they put on a show for the thousands of spectators hoping to catch just a glimpse of the star-studded group in packed quarters. One of the day’s loudest cheers came after the tee shot at 16, when the group took part in a pre-Masters tradition. With the three right-handed players lined up to Mickelson’s right, they swung simultaneously for a shotgun skip across the pond.

One hole prior, the foursome walked and talked together down the fairway at the par-5 15th. Only Mickelson’s distinctive banter was audible outside the ropes.

Woods carried them to victory on that hole by outdriving everyone else and hitting a near-perfect approach to the downhill, landing strip green protected by water. He made the eagle putt, something he hasn’t done in competition through five starts this season. He also made eagle at the par-5 13th hole.

All four par-5s at Augusta are reachable for Woods if he can find the fairway, though No. 8 would require a particularly well-struck drive. He was able to outdrive 24-year-old Justin Thomas during their Monday practice round and is averaging 304.2 yards off the tee this season, something he continues to insist is a complete mystery.

“I’ll be honest with you, it is crazy,” Woods said. “The swing numbers are up. I’m north of 120 (miles per hour). That’s what the shocking thing is. I didn’t think I would ever reach north of 120, and I’m cruising at 120. So that part is very exciting, because I know that if I can maintain this, I can play out here for a very long time.”

Can he play long enough to actually challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors? Probably not, but ridiculously improbable things happen sometimes. Like Woods and Mickelson laughing together on the range and playing a practice round at Augusta.

How’s that for a narrative?

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