Woods, Mickelson on set to face off at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. – He was on the practice range at first light, only his coach and caddie at his side. Then it was off to the putting green, where he kept pressing an Augusta National official for permission to start his practice round before the course was open. It’s a familiar story for Tiger Woods each year at the Masters. But on this frigid yesterday morning, the routine belonged to Phil Mickelson. They have kept different schedules this week – Mickelson playing early, Woods the late arrival with his most limited practice in his Masters career. They were one group apart Sunday afternoon when both arrived at Augusta and played the front nine. ‘Tiger and Phil are out there playing,’ one of the club members said before adding with a smile, ‘Not together, obviously.’ They are not particularly close, except in the world ranking. The top two players in golf – and the best rivalry of their generation – could be on a collision course at the first major of the year. Woods returned from an eight-month break after knee surgery to win at Bay Hill two weeks ago when he rallied from a five-shot deficit to beat Sean O’Hair with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole in the dark. It was type of putt Woods always seems to make, one summed up perfectly by Geoff Ogilvy: ‘Everyone is impressed, but no one is surprised.’ Mickelson already has won twice this year, repeating at Riviera and winning at Doral for his first World Golf Championship. ‘I feel like right now I’m playing some of the best golf that I’ve ever played,’ Mickelson said. They have not gone head-to-head at the Masters since 2001, when they played in the final group and Woods won by two shots to become the only pro to capture four consecutive majors. Mickelson has won the Masters twice, and while the first one is the most memorable – remember that leap? – it was equally gratifying in 2006 to have Woods, the defending champion, help him into the green jacket. ‘I do have a picture of him sliding that jacket on me,’ Mickelson said with a smile. ‘That felt good.’ They are considered the top two contenders at the Masters, which starts Thursday, even in a year when there is no shortage of story lines, from Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major to Greg Norman returning to a major he loves, but has received no love back. Mickelson could go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in an otherwise stellar career if he were to win the Masters and Woods finished out of the top five. ‘It would be an incredible feat, given who is currently No. 1,’ Mickelson said. That would be Woods, who intends to stay there. ‘The No. 1 ranking takes care of itself, just by winning golf tournaments,’ Woods said. ‘That’s the only way you can really get it. You just have to continue to win.’ The last time Mickelson was so prominently featured at a major was three years ago in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, when he had a one-shot lead on the 18th hole with a chance to join Woods (who had missed the cut) and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight majors. Mickelson made double bogey to lose by one, and he has not contended in a major since. Now that opportunity belongs to Harrington, who won the British Open and PGA Championship last year with Woods on the mend. That would seem to make the Irishman a natural rival to Woods, only he doesn’t see it that way. ‘I would have to say I can’t be a rival, because in the end I’m always fighting with myself,’ Harrington said. ‘I’m always competing with myself. I’m trying to better myself all the time. So I don’t really have a rival in that sense. I’m totally focused on trying to get the best performance out of me, and trying to improve my performance.’ Woods has had a revolving door of rivals throughout his career – Ernie Els, David Duval, Vijay Singh, Mickelson – but no other rivalry carries as much energy as the rivalry with Lefty, even though it has been one-sided. Neither of them see it that way. ‘I think the whole idea is to handle your own business and on Sunday, see where you are,’ Woods said. ‘You don’t look at it and say, ‘I have to beat this one person to win the golf tournament.’ Because there are a whole host of people that you have to beat.’ Woods knows that from recent experience at Augusta. He has been a Masters runner-up the last two years. He couldn’t make enough birdies to make a run at Trevor Immelman last year, and he couldn’t buy a putt in 2007 when he was trying to track down Zach Johnson. It was the only time he played in the final group at the Masters without winning. ‘The last couple of years, my putting has been streaky here,’ Woods said. ‘I get on rolls where I made everything, and I get on rolls where I didn’t make anything. Consequently, I didn’t win the tournament.’ Mickelson believes rivalries are created only in the mind of the media and the public. He won the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston in 2007 while paired with Woods in the final round, but he said he only cared about his own play. Even so, Mickelson is among the few who relishes a chance to take on Woods, especially in a major. ‘Hopefully, we will both play well,’ Mickelson said. ‘We have 54 holes where we have to play great golf. I don’t think that’s a question for him. I think he’s playing some great golf, and I think he’s going to be there. I think that I’ve been playing some of the best golf of my career, and I believe I’m going to be there, too.’ On a tough golf course where birdies have become more rare, that might be enough to bring back some roars to the Masters.