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  • For years, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson competed endlessly for headlines, tournaments and prestige. So how did the two rivals become friends? It's been a slow process years in the making.
By Daniel Rapaport
November 19, 2018

Much has been said, tweeted and written about what the Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson $9 million match in Las Vegas represents.

The skeptics say greed—after all, it's two 40-somethings playing for money that isn't theirs, in a city known for manufacturing glitz and hype out of thin air... and they expect people to pay $20 for it? More optimistic folks champion the event as the type of outside-the-box, distinctly un-country club vibe that golf so desperately needs. Two legends mic'd up, playing match play, on a broadcast that embraces gambling rather than treating it as taboo. 

Both diagnoses are true. This is a money-grab, just as every pay per view broadcast is a money grab. It is also a refreshing departure from the repetitive, monotonous golf broadcasts we see nearly every weekend on network television.

To me, the main story of this entire spectacle isn't the money or the futuristic broadcast. It's the culmination of a multi-year détente between two titans of a sport, who spent the better part of two decades harboring disdain toward one another that was equal parts hushed and deep-seated. 

To understand the Tiger-Phil dynamic of old, you have to start with the beginning of Mickelson's career. Phil is about five and a half years older than Tiger but became a household name (at least in the golf world) only two years before Woods, who burst onto the scene by becoming the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champion in 1991 at the age of 15.

Two summers prior, in 1989, then-Arizona State freshman Mickelson won the first of three NCAA individual titles. The next year, he repeated as individual champ...and led the Sun Devils to the team title...and won the U.S. Amateur. It was arguably the best year an amateur golfer has ever had and, unsurprisingly, he also won the first of three consecutive Haskins Awards (golf's equivalent to the Heisman). In 1991, he won the PGA Tour's Northern Telecom Open while still an amateur, a feat no player since has been able to match. At the time of his graduation in 1992, Mickelson was a darling of the golf world; a charming personality with an unparalleled amateur résumé. The heir apparent to Jack Nicklaus. 

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His solo time in the sun wouldn't last more than two years. In 1994, Tiger won the first of three straight U.S. Amateurs, all in dramatic comeback fashion. And while Mickelson was a likeable and pleasant golfer, Woods had the makings of a global superstar who could transcend sports—a mixed-race kid, from a working-class family, with a million-dollar smile, who wasn't afraid to sprint around a green pumping his fist after a made putt.

By the 1997 Masters, which Woods won by 12, Mickelson already had 10 Tour wins…but no majors. Woods' historic victory—he became the first African-American to win at Augusta—stole the thunder from Mickelson, relegating Lefty to second in golf's pecking order. It would only get worse over the next six years, as Woods went on a historic tear while Mickelson struggled to keep pace. Between the 1997 Masters and the 2004 Masters, which Mickelson finally won for his first major title, Woods won seven more majors. It was 8-0 in that department before Mickelson got on the board. 

Despite a career including five majors and 43 Tour wins, Mickelson never reached world No. 1, spending years on years behind only Tiger. You can hardly blame him for being jealous, though he's always been too classy to say that outright. He has, however, dropped hints to less-than-warm feelings toward Mr. Woods. In 2003, while Mickelson was still answering question after question about why he hasn't won a major, he said the following in a Golf Magazine interview: "In my mind, Tiger and I don't have issues between us. Well, maybe one. He hates that I can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with." A backhanded compliment of the highest order.

In his prime, Woods seldom discussed Mickelson on the record, surely subscribing to the logic of a lion not concerning himself with the opinion of a sheep. But here's all you need to know about how Tiger felt about Phil. From Alan Shipnuck:

“At a long ago Masters, when Woods was an intriguing amateur prospect and Mickelson a hotshot young pro being billed as the Next Nicklaus, Tiger sneaked a reporter into the Crow’s Nest, the tiny dormitory perched atop the Augusta National clubhouse. Woods was monitoring the telecast when Mickelson flashed onto the screen. With his long, languid stroke, Phil charged a putt past the hole. As the ball trickled farther and farther away, Tiger offered only one word of commentary: “Roll.”

The most cringeworthy manifestation of their relationship came at the 2004 Ryder Cup, where captain Hal Sutton decided to pair Woods and Mickelson together. They went 0–2 together and looked miserable doing so. As Mickelson struggled with new equipment—famously switching to Callaway just before the Cup—Tiger watched with apparent disgust. There was no juice between the two players, no firing each other up. No captain of any U.S. team has paired them together again.

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The understated animosity persisted through the mid-2000s, as Woods appeared destined to overtake Nickalus's record of 18 majors and, in the process, supplant the Golden Bear as the unquestioned greatest of all time. 

Then came Thanksgiving 2009, when Woods hit that fire hydrant. Then came the tabloid exposés and the sex addiction and the end of his marriage. Then came the chipping yips and the swing coaches and the 85 at the Memorial. While Woods' game and health and reputation crumbled, Mickelson remained, apart from some financial hiccups, largely scandal-free. From afar, the dynamic appeared to shift a bit—Mickelson was the one with an overwhelmingly positive reputation, while Woods' calamitous downfall turned him into a tragic figure of sorts. 

Whether it was that shift or the softening that comes with age—look at Kobe and Shaq's relationship arc for a similar example of guys burying the hatchet as the years pass—something changed between the two. According to Shipnuck: It really began after the 2014 Ryder Cup, when a blowout U.S. loss spurred the creation of a Ryder Cup Task Force. Both players served on that task force and collaborated frequently and honestly. When Woods went through his short-game struggles in 2015, Mickelson reached out to offer words of encouragement. Woods congratulated Mickelson after his win earlier this year when he picked up his first win in five years at the WGC-Mexico Championship.

It was at the Masters that we really saw just how far they'd come. The two voluntarily played a practice round together, something that was patently unthinkable in their primes. By the Players Championship, where they were paired together and laid grounds for The Match with friendly pre-tournament banter, the détente was complete. 

As much as the rivalry was understandable, the new friendship makes just as much sense. Both players realize they are—forgive me for this one—on the back nine of their careers. Phil realizes that Tiger is single handedly responsible for the stark increase in prize money, which has made Mickelson a richer man. And Tiger realizes that every champion needs a challenger, that Mickelson's constant pressure motivated him to be better. 

On Friday at Shadow Creek, the two will smile for the cameras and make side bets and playfully needle each other. Phil will try and get under Tiger's skin. Tiger will counter by pointing to his superior major and win totals. It's the type of trash talk that would have been awkwardly biting in, say, 2002. Now, it's just two 40-somethings talking trash on the golf course. 

No hard feelings. 

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