John Romano | The one advantage Phil Mickelson had on Tiger Woods was his popularity. And now he’s thrown that away.
The headlines were totally unrelated and yet cosmically linked.
The first, arriving earlier this month, described the grand night at the PGA Tour headquarters where golf royalty came to fete Tiger Woods on his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The second, coming days later, announced that Phil Mickelson was skipping the Masters for the first time in 28 years following a controversy of his own making.
Tiger & Phil. Phil & Tiger. As entwined as any two golfers since Arnie & Jack. They have been rivals and teammates. They have been adversaries and peers. They have been forced by fate to have walked the same fairways and greens while competing for the same trophies and legacies for decade upon decade.
When it mattered most, Tiger usually had the upper hand. He won more tournaments, he collected more majors, he earned history’s favor.
If there was a consolation for Phil, it was that he was the people’s champion. The one who was forever smiling and signing autographs, while Tiger kept the world at arm’s length.
And that’s what made the recent juxtaposition of headlines so remarkable. Now, as their careers approach sundown, Tiger has transformed into this venerable figure. A champion who has overcome injuries, misfortune and his own demons to become more endearing than ever.
Phil, meanwhile, has disappeared from the public’s eye with rumors that Augusta National asked him to bow out of the Masters, as well as whispers of a possible PGA Tour suspension.
It is, in its own way, the most unlikely chapter in a long, contentious relationship.
“It’s true, Tiger has become beloved,” said SI.com golf writer Bob Harig. “He’s kind of evolved into the role of an elder statesman, which Phil should have had.”
Harig, a former St. Petersburg Times sports writer who has covered both golfers since the beginning of their careers, explores the complicated nature of their relationship in an excellent new book, Tiger & Phil: Golf’s Most Fascinating Rivalry.
The book takes readers through a journey that begins with the astonishing amateur careers of both players in California, through Tiger’s domination on the Tour, Phil’s latter-career rebound in majors and their disappointing performances in Ryder Cup competition.
The most intriguing parts of the book are the behind-the-scenes insults, snubs and machinations of two of the greatest golfers in history. There are anecdotes of Tiger’s pettiness and Phil’s penchant for taking jabs whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Harig recounts the story of the 2002 PGA Championship when Rich Beem sunk a clinching putt and Tiger celebrated in the scoring area, despite finishing one stroke behind. “That’s Rich Beem 1, Phil Mickelson zero!” Tiger bellowed, in reference to the number of major championships won.
When Phil came out $500 ahead of Tiger after some friendly wagering during a practice round at the 1998 Nissan Open, he couldn’t resist leaving a smart-aleck note in Tiger’s locker. Tiger, Harig wrote, did not play another practice round with Phil for 20 years.
It is stunning, in some ways, that two immensely talented, wealthy and accomplished men could harbor such childish jealousies, but it’s also instructive in how they used each other for motivation.
The rivalry itself was bound to create some friction, but their different backgrounds and approaches to the game only heightened their apparent dislike. And it didn’t help that Phil was immensely popular with fans, due to his personality but also, undoubtedly, the subtext of race.
There was rarely any public indications of unease, but it was clear they were not on friendly terms, particularly early in their careers.
“Tiger, I think, had a little disdain for Phil because he didn’t think he worked hard enough. Like, ‘How is this guy not doing better? He’s wasting all this talent,’” Harig said. “And then, around the time Phil won his first Masters, I think Tiger started to view him as a real threat.
“There was also the resentment I think he felt. Phil was incredibly popular, and Tiger took a lot of shots from people. It was sort of like Phil was the Arnie (Palmer) in this relationship. Back in the day, Jack (Nicklaus) was not popular; Arnie was. Because he smiled, waved, signed autographs. Phil did all of that. Now, some people thought it was phony. If it was, so what? At least he did it.”
And yet now, as both golfers transition to middle age, it’s Phil who is dealing with a scandal. His comments about wanting to use a murderous regime in Saudi Arabia for a new golf league that would put pressure on the PGA Tour and its “obnoxious greed” were remarkably crass and self-serving.
The remarks were so out-of-bounds that almost no one has come to his defense, and even his public apology was criticized for a perceived lack of sincerity.
This should have been Phil’s shining moment. With Tiger relegated to the background following a traffic accident, Phil became the oldest player to claim a major after winning the PGA Championship in 2021 at age 50. The crowds loved him, and his place in the record books was secure. Finally, he had the spotlight to himself.