Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Books: One Of Golf's Great Rivalries Examined In "Tiger & Phil" By Bob Harig


Tiger & Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry

By Bob Harig

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 336 pages; $29.99; available today, Tuesday, April 26th

Tiger and Phil. Their names, first names, bring to mind the last 25 years of golf, filled with plenty of triumphs and trials and tribulations.

Tiger Woods went on an unparalleled run of dominance that began when he burst on the scene at the 1997 Masters, and along with him was the only golfer that came close to being an equal, Phil Mickelson. 

They are two of the most recognizable athletes in the world, Woods in his trademark logo "TW" cap and red-and-black outfit on Sunday, and Mickelson, a left-hander with his long hair flowing out of his cap, and in recent years, Aviator sunglasses, like he wore when he stunned the world and won the PGA Championship at 50 years old, making him the oldest man to ever win a Major.

Bob Harig, SI.com's golf writer and a longtime writer for ESPN and the Tampa Bay Times, has covered Tiger and Phil for the durations of their remarkable careers. He has conducted plenty of one-on-one interviews with each of them, making him the perfect one to write this definitive work on them, Tiger & Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry.

When one thinks of golf rivalries, for quite a long time, the one between Arnie and Jack - Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - would come to mind. Now, especially among the younger set drawn to golf because of them, the answer is likely Tiger and Phil.

Through all their success, they each has faced adversity, starting with injuries, legal hassles, personal trials, and a love-hate relationship with the press.

While there are many books on Woods (I mean, there is a lot there to warrant the library you could fill on Tiger), there is not nearly as much on Mickelson, let alone his rivalry with Mickelson, making Harig's book a unique one.

Harig begins with the genesis of their rivalry in 1996, when Tiger won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur, while Mickelson won his ninth PGA Tour victory, which nearly nobody noticed. Tiger was the focus, and within days of that victory, he signed $40 million worth of endorsement deals and turned pro. Just four days later, he played at his first pro event, and while Mickelson was also competing, all the talk was about Tiger.

One thing readers will wonder is, how have they interacted with each other through the years? Are they friends off the course, like other rivals, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, become over time?

Through anecdotes, it is known that most of Tiger's angst toward Phil was behind the scenes. At the 1998 Nissan Open, which was played at Valencia Country Club, Tiger and Phil played a practice round together. Phil, a reputed gambler, took $500 off Tiger, and paid him in $100 bills. Not content to just win the bet, Phil took a picture of the bills and wrote a note to Woods saying the "benjis" were happy in their new home, and he put it in Tiger's locker. It would take 20 years for them to play another practice round together.

Before Phil won his first major in 2004 - seven years after Woods won his first of eight to that point - Tiger questioned his commitment. He knew Mickelson was an incredible talent, but felt he was wasting his talent and that he was out of shape. However, Tiger didn't mind that the number of majors was 8 to 0 in his rivalry with Phil.

That ledger was put to the test at the 2001 Masters, when Tiger was aiming for his fourth straight Major championship, what was referred to as the "Tiger Slam," and he was matched with Mickelson in the final pairing on Sunday. This was a big chance for Phil to get his first Major and stake a claim in their rivalry, while, for Tiger, it would have been the worst way to see his dream of holding all four major trophies at once, go up in smoke. Tiger pulled it out, while Phil finished third. "He was so friggin' hard to beat at that time," Mickelson is quoted as saying.

In this excerpt, Harig describes the complexity of their rivalry in terms of what each golfer won: "Woods won more majors (15 to 6) and more PGA Tour events (82 to 45) than Mickelson. And while Mickleson never got to No. 1 in the world, he was a constant in Woods' career. On the very day Woods won the third of three straight U.S. Amateur titles in August of 1996 - and just hours ahead of announcing he would be turning professional - Mickelson, then 25, moved to ninth in the world with his fourth victory of that season, his first time cracking the top 10 and securing a space atop the game he occupied fo the next 15 years.

Tiger won early and big as a pro and was No. 1 in the world less than a year into his career, but much of the time the guy right behind him was Mickelson, who spent eight different periods at No. 2 for a total of 270 weeks - all with Woods in the top position.

While Woods won more, one could imagine Mickelson becoming a Hall of Famer anyway. Woods was winning everything, everywhere, but in his professional era, Mickelson managed 36 PGA Tour victories, including six major championships. Mickelson is tied for eighth all-time on the PGA Tour with his 45 victories, but the 36 he captured in the Tiger era is bettered by just 11 others in the entirety of their careers...

Theirs isn't a rivalry in the classic sense. Golf doesn't really work that way. But Woods has always been aware of Mickelson, and Mickelson has certainly been aware of Woods.

'It's been an incredible opportunity for me to play my career against him, but also been incredibly difficult,' Mickelson said. 'I oftentimes wonder what my career would be had he not come along, and I think it could go either way. He's brought out the best of me at times, and it's also been very intimidating and difficult to compete against his level of play.'

Their relationship has run the gamut from frigid to friendly, with some epic moments along the way: that ill-fated Ryder Cup pairing; a highly publicized spat between Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, and Mickelson; Phil's deriding of Tiger's equipment; and an underlying racial bias that seemed to shift some popularity toward Mickelson despite Woods' better record...

Much like Arnie and Jack, Phil and Tiger typically had their 'sides.' To many, you were a 'Phil fan' or a 'Tiger fan' and rarely both. That meant rooting for one at the expense of the other, not unlike Magic and Bird or the Yankees and the Red Sox or Ohio State and Michigan.

And while they might not have always gone head-to-head, they were always there, competing in the biggest tournaments, especially the major championships. In fact, it took until the 2019 Open for a remarkable statistic to emerge: for the first time in 83 major championships in which they both competed, they each missed the 36-hole cut...

Year after year, decade after decade, Woods had Mickelson, and Mickelson had Woods. They pursued championships and No. 1 rankings, but they also pursued each other. Their battles have had an iconic quality to them. Their respective defining shots take up much of the room on any top 10 list. And few players could verbally spar with one another like Woods and Mickelson or compete for the same endorsement real estate, which led to lucrative business holdings for both."

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