AUGUSTA, Ga. — Though they have competed in a combined 45 Masters, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson never had played a practice round together at Augusta National Golf Club until their nine-hole excursion Tuesday morning.
Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters winner, speculated that it might not be the last time they’re sharing a tee box this week.
“Come Sunday, they may be paired together [again],” said Couples, who with Belgium’s Thomas Pieters was handed a drubbing by the U.S. odd couple in a four-ball match. “They’re playing extremely well and they love the course, and they’re going to do very, very well.”
It was only a practice round, but Woods, 42, showed why his return to the Masters field after a two-year hiatus is so highly anticipated. He displayed power and shot-making in front of overflow galleries standing 8 to 10 people deep for the second straight day, eagling both par 5s, 13 and 15. He threw in a tricky downhill 20-foot birdie at 16 for good measure. He bogeyed the 10th, but he only missed two fairways and two greens.
“I feel great. I feel like I’ve really put a lot of pieces together,” said Woods, who has put those pieces together in just five PGA Tour starts. “We have worked on what body parts to get stronger, what body parts need to be more limber, and I feel fantastic. It’s just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers.”
Woods did his part Tuesday while Mickelson added birdies on 14, 16 and 17. After falling 2 down early, the Woods-Mickelson tandem won five of the last six holes and whatever carrots were on the line.
“Thomas and I, we got shellayleed,” Couples said, obviously meaning they got whipped.
“He was brilliant,” Pieters said of Woods as he scooted past reporters to grab a quick lunch.
The pairing came about by happenstance. Couples and Pieters, who have a mutual friend through the shoe company G/Fore, had planned weeks ago to play a practice round this week. Mickelson said he and Woods chatted Monday about hooking up for nine holes. Woods put the foursome together after playing with Couples Monday afternoon.
“It was going to be a nice, quiet two-ball, and then we add Tiger and Phil and well … you know,” said Pieters’ caddie, Adam Morrow.
Added Couples, who should be used to Masters hoopla by now as he prepares for his 33rd appearance: “When you get paired with Tiger, the energy is unreal. And when you get paired with Phil, the energy is unreal. It was fun. It was very loud, it was very fun, and they hit some really good shots. Wow.”
On the 11th tee, the foursomes’ game already was getting serious, sort of. Couples declared to Mickelson, “I’m taking it here,” meaning, he was taking the one stroke that he was getting from his opponents. After he split the fairway, Mickelson said, “You’re lying zero.”
Woods’ most impressive hole was the 15th, where he drove it 30 yards past Mickelson and Pieters and 50 yards ahead of Couples. He needed no more than an 8- or 9-iron to put it four feet from the hole, set on the left side of the green, for an easy eagle. At 13, he knocked in a 12-foot putt from behind the hole.
“It was good to be able to watch what he was doing and how he was hitting it. I wanted to see him play being right there,” said Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, who at 47 has a good chance for a fourth green jacket after a win last month at the WGC-Mexico Championship, his first victory in almost five years.
The left-hander reckoned that he and Woods had not played a practice round together—with the exception of the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup—in at least 20 years. He wore a long-sleeved button-down shirt that he was giving an experimental tryout. “I wanted to see how it felt. It’s a stretchy fabric, so it works well. Yeah, wanted to be dressed up for it [today’s round].”
“I was giving him a little grief about it. Only thing missing was a tie,” said Woods with a sly smile, acknowledging later that he and Mickelson, rivals for many years, have grown closer as they have aged. “We have gone through it a long time, the better part of 20 years, and 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.”
Woods, who won the last of his four Masters titles in 2005 and last won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open—a span of 38 majors—is done with his dress rehearsals for what is likely to be his first realistic chance to add to his major total since a T-6 finish at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.
His comeback from spinal fusion surgery last April has been exceedingly promising, with top-five finishes in his last two starts and coming off 10 straight rounds of par or better. He said he hasn’t felt this good physically in “probably seven or eight years.”
Seven years ago, he was coming off his second straight fourth-place tie. But he hasn’t gone through the four back surgeries and all the rehab for top-five finishes and a nice paycheck. Woods always has played for history.
So, naturally, he was asked where his comeback would rank were he to win this week.
“I have four rounds to play, so let’s slow down,” said the 14-time major winner, who pointed out that the build-up of anticipation is not unique him, citing the 2001 Masters, when he was vying for his fourth straight major title. His victory completed what is known as the “Tiger Slam.”
“If you remember the build‑up was from the PGA Championship of 2000 to the Masters of 2001, nine months of building up, what that tournament would mean. And it’s the same thing. Got to go play and then let the chips fall where they may, and, hopefully, I end up on top. But I got a lot of work to do between now and then.”
At least the hard part of the task if over. After so many fits and starts and aborted comebacks, Woods is back in the Masters. He looks fit, he is swinging the driver upwards of 127 miles per hour, an eye-popping number for someone with a back so extensively repaired. And his ability to score appears to be trending in a direction reminiscent of his more halcyon days.
He calls himself “a walking miracle.” Perhaps he is. Only he knows for sure.
“It’s been a tough road,” Woods allowed. “I’ve described a little bit of it, the pain of just sitting there and the amount of times that I’ve fallen because my leg didn’t work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of times. Those are some really dark, dark times.
“The reason why I say I’m a walking miracle is that I don’t know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That’s incredible. Some guys have said, yeah, I need to fuse my back so I can hit it harder. No, you don’t want to go through that. But that’s why I say that. It is a miracle.”
It’s a damn good story, too. The only question left is what kind of ending can he author?