The phrase “what a time to be alive” has become cliched as a result of its misuse on social media, but it feels especially apt in the era of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Tiger Woods has been the greatest thrill ride in sports, winning three straight U.S. Junior and Amateur titles, 15 majors, a Masters by 12, a U.S. Open by 15, a British by eight, on one leg at Torrey and nearly 11 years later a fifth Masters after even he thought he was done. Phil, the last amateur to win a PGA Tour championship, was winless in his first 46 majors before winning the Masters with a birdie putt on 18 and one of the most iconic white-men-can’t-jump celebrations in history.
He would go on to win five more tournaments, including the British Open with a legendary final-round effort at Muirfield and the PGA Championship with an age-defying out-of-nowhere victory in 2021. His losses, particularly at the U.S. Open, where he finished second six times, were equally as shocking and memorable.
Imagine being a national golf journalist between Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson, and your bar stories were around Andy North and Scott Simpson winning US Opens or Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam winning the Masters. There are many great players, but nothing compares to seeing a Tiger Slam or a 50-year-old with virtually nothing in in the tank win a major. Or the domination of 683 weeks as World No. 1 and a record-setting 142 consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour. Bob Harig, who has covered golf for the St. Petersburg Times, ESPN, and now Sports Illustrated/Morning Read, was born in the right place at the right time and has witnessed so much history.
To begin, consider the subtitle: “Golf’s most fascinating rivalry.” Fans of Hogan, Nelson, Palmer, and Nicklaus may disagree, and it may lend itself to allegations of recency bias, but Harig admits that many will look at his premise and wonder, “What rivalry?”
“Whether they were true rivals – or even buddies,” Harig writes, “might be discussed on barstools until closing time and beyond.”
After all, Tiger had already won eight majors before Phil. Tiger was 25 when he won his sixth major at the 2001 Masters, completing the Tiger Slam, and was half the age of Mickelson at the time. Phil’s current count is tied with Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino, although Tiger can always point to the fact that he won seven majors in a row from the 1999 U.S. Open through the 2002 U.S. Open.
Phil never finished first on the PGA Tour money list, was never named Player of the Year, and never progressed to the top spot. Mickelson enjoyed eight different times as World No. 2 for a total of 270 weeks, according to Harig, all with Tiger Woods at the top. In the classic sense, there isn’t much of a rivalry.
When they were grouped together, Tiger won 19-15-4 and took 2,653 strokes to Phil’s 2,678 – a margin of only 25 strokes over 38 rounds. (Side note: what a blown opportunity it was that they only played together a few times.)
When Mickelson won the Masters in 2006, the two exchanged green jackets in the same way as Palmer and Nicklaus did from 1962 to 1965, and Tiger and Phil won six of the eight major championships that were played in 2005-06. Another proof of their long and successful run: in the 83 major tournaments in which they both appeared, the 2019 British Open was the first time that both players missed the 36-hole cut. You may argue all you want about whether Tiger’s dominance qualifies them as a rivalry, but it was certainly entertaining. You were either a Phil or a Tiger fan for the majority of their careers, but rarely both. Harig depicts all of their relationship’s ups and downs.
“Tiger saw Phil as an underachiever for a long time,” he says, “a player not making the most of his enormous talent, undeserving of his respect.”
Fred Funk recalls Tiger letting out a scream in scoring after falling short of winning the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, and it’s one of the most striking incidents from their icy early days. Rather than being disappointed, Tiger seemed to revel in the fact that he had been defeated by a journeyman pro.
He yelled, observing the current major count on the scoreboard, “Rich Beem one, Phil Mickelson zero.”
Harig is at his best when bringing some of Tiger’s greatest hits to life – I especially enjoyed the chapter on “Torrey Pines” and the 2008 U.S. Open, which is even more mind-boggling when Harig reminds readers that Tiger won nine of 12 tournaments, with two seconds and a fifth, while playing with two stress fractures in his tibia, the main source of his pain, and played at Torrey with two stress fractures in his tibia
“Once he realized he couldn’t hurt himself anymore, that it was simply an issue of pain, he decided he could manage the pain,” said Tiger’s right-hand man Rob McNamara in 2008 at Torrey: “Once he realized he couldn’t hurt himself anymore, that it was simply an issue of pain, he decided he could manage the pain.”
While the Tiger Slam is only two decades old, it is nonetheless fun to revisit, and Harig does so in detail. I liked this one, too, of the Tiger Tree at the Naval Golf Course in California, where Tiger grew up, a tall elm on the sixth hole that stood more than 300 yards from the tee, and Tiger paying for a dinner with a gift certificate the week of his professional debut at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open and needing to borrow $100 from Butch Harmon to pay the entry fee.
Tiger smashed it as a teenager, which was significant since his father had indicated that once he got his tee shots to roll past it, he’d be ready for competitions.
Here are a few of my favorite Phil stories: When Phil and Tiger played a practice round at the 2018 Masters, it was big news, but I didn’t realize it had been 20 years since they’d done so, dating back to the 1998 Los Angeles Open, when Phil took a victory lap by photocopying the $500 bills he’d won from Tiger and sticking them in Tiger’s locker with a note that read, “Just wanted you to know Benji and his friends are very happy in their new home.” Tiger was a man with a long memory.
And Phil adopting Sean O’Hair under his wing at the 2009 Presidents Cup, despite O’Hair’s request not to be partnered with him for a variety of reasons, including their golf balls. When Phil learned, he consented to utilize O’Hair’s ball and helped him win the team tournament. Phil at his best.
Harig spoke with most of Tiger and Phil’s key figures throughout their careers, and there are fascinating insights into how majors were won, such as Steve Williams’ key read at the 1999 PGA at Medinah and Jim “Bones” Mackay convincing Phil to use a pitching wedge instead of his preferred 9-iron, believing that a hard, aggressive swing with less club would produce the spin needed to get the ball close.
Phil got a crucial birdie by stuffing it within inches. Bones also reveals his greatest regret: missing Phil’s 6-foot birdie putt at 17 during the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst.
In describing Phil’s collapse at the 2006 U.S. Open, Harig points out that Phil had previously lost to Payne Stewart punching out and saving par to beat him in the 1999 U.S. Open, and David Toms doing the same thing in the 2001 PGA, wedging onto the final green and holing the par putt to deny Phil another major. So, at the 2006 U.S. Open, why did Phil take the hero shot at 18?
“It appears Phil could have done exactly the same thing at Winged Foot,” writes Harig.
If you’re hoping for more juicy information about either of their personal lives, you won’t find them here, which is fine. My main criticism of the book is that Harig could have delved more into several of their professions’ contentious topics. He doesn’t sugarcoat any of their flaws, but he also doesn’t offer anything new to the discussion (and that includes the golf-centric sensitive subjects such as parting with caddies and coaches).
I like the few times Harig chose to go first-person, and I only wish he had included more of them because he was one of the few reporters with whom Tiger felt comfortable speaking on- and off-the-record outside of his press conferences (of which Harig notes some 1,700 transcripts between 1996 and 2020 exist on the web).
What a time to be alive, and what a moment to write about in a book that was simply waiting to be written.
Leave a Reply