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New World Order: Tiger vs. Phil through the years

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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LA JOLLA, Calif. -- All things considered, given the back story, venom and vitriol involved, one of their most indisputably memorable tete-a-tetes took place right here on the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, eight long years ago.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Southern California natives but hardly each other's homeboy, were paired together in the final round of the then-Buick Invitational, after both had spent the week either tossing barbs at each other or defending statements made regarding his opposite number.

Lefty defended his assertion that Woods was using inferior equipment. Woods characterized Lefty as a "smart aleck" at times. Then they settled things by playing for the title on Sunday.

Ah, memories.

America's sweethearts -- in the eyes of the public, not necessarily each other -- renew acquaintances as part of the field this week in their PGA Tour season opener at Torrey Pines, where they engaged in one of their most vivid showdowns in 2003.

Not that there have been many, to put it bluntly.

The two most decorated players of the current era, with 18 major titles counted among their 109 combined PGA Tour victories, have not crossed paths down the Sunday back stretch very often. But they have at Torrey Pines, which is reason enough for the timing of this best-of compilation.

New World Order, our weekly list of the dramatic, comedic or numeric, this time features the most indelible skirmishes between Woody and Lefty, who despite 15 overlapping professional seasons together, have spent precious little time butting heads for tour titles in final rounds.

Heck, they don't meet very often, period, since they routinely are placed on opposite sides of the Thursday and Friday pairings sheet to, shall we say, protect the weekday broadcasting interests. (Translated: That way, one of them is assured of playing during the afternoon TV window in the first two rounds).

For the hysterical historians tracking their intersections over the years, this isn't designed to be a comprehensive list, just the most comprehensible. Purely for the sake of coherence, the tilts are listed in chronological order, which is important in tracking the ebb and flow of their meetings, which, as you will see, no longer are one-sided mutilations.

2000 Tour Championship

Atlanta, Ga.

East Lake Golf Club

They weren't paired in the final group on Sunday -- Woods was playing directly behind Mickelson at East Lake. But it was close enough to warrant a mention for myriad reasons.

Namely that, before Woods began systematically stomping Mickelson, Phil briefly held an advantage at a point when Woods was considered close to unbeatable.

Woods had just won the last three majors of 2000, taking the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA titles in the greatest run of the post-war era, when Mickelson reeled him in at the Tour Championship, terminating Woods' streak of winning 19 straight events in which he had held at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Of course, his record with the lead entering Sunday would take on a life of its own over the years.

Once Woods got his legs under him as a seasoned professional, Lefty was really the first to put a blemish on the closer mark. Mickelson started the day one shot behind Woods and shot a 4-under 66 to beat Tiger by three on the day.

Mickelson drew laughs when he was asked about how, given Woods' growing stature as the game's greatest closer, he was able to snap the streak.

"I didn't really expect him to win," Mickelson said. "I thought that I had a pretty good chance and I really liked the position that I was in. Being one group in front and having them watch me make birdies was a spot that I wanted to be in. To shoot 4-under the front side can be difficult to follow on Sundays. I have been in both situations."

That general sentiment, folks, is what we call foreshadowing.

2001 Masters Tournament

Augusta, Ga.

Augusta National Golf Club

Tiger Woods completed the 'Tiger Slam' at the 2001 Masters ... with Mickelson watching the whole way. (Getty Images)  
Tiger Woods completed the 'Tiger Slam' at the 2001 Masters ... with Mickelson watching the whole way. (Getty Images)  
The ink was barely dry on their East Lake cards than did Lefty and Woody meet for another final-round staredown, this time in the same pairing in the final group on Sunday.

Hey, no pressure, really. Woods was seeking an unprecedented fourth straight Grand Slam title. Mickelson, meanwhile, must have felt like he was standing before an onrushing train, blindfolded.

By the time the pair came down the stretch, it was a battle between Woods and Duval. Mickelson sprayed drives into trees and made four bogeys, mistakes he could not overcome, and shot 70.

Woods, who continued to play at an other-worldly level that would secure his stature in the game forever, shot 68 and won by two strokes over Duval. Mickelson insisted afterward he didn't watch partner Woods hit his shots and wanted no part in gushing over the significance of his opposite number's historic achievement.

"I really haven't been thinking about it," Mickelson said dejectedly of what became known as the Tiger Slam. "I couldn't answer that right now."

It took years before Lefty could answer Tiger, period. But eventually, after many bruises, he found a way.

2003 Buick Invitational

La Jolla, Calif.

Torrey Pines Golf Course

In some ways, this remains their most memorable meeting ever because it was weeks in the making. Woods was making his season debut after offseason knee surgery and was immediately asked if he had read Mickelson's offseason comments to Golf Magazine.

In a clumsy attempt to give Woods an indirect compliment, Mickelson called the world No. 1's equipment "inferior," when he meant to say something akin to "obsolete." Woods at the time wasn't using big-headed drivers or availing himself of the most modern club-making amenities. In case you haven't noticed over his 16 seasons in professional spikes, Tiger isn't one to let any slight, real or perceived, pass without turning it into fuel for the fire.

The pre-tournament storyline came full circle when they each made clutch putts on Saturday night that put them in the final group on Sunday with Brad Faxon, who had a ringside seat to it all.

"I felt like Switzerland," Faxon said afterward, in one of the funniest tour quotes ever.

Woods, then 26-2 when staked to the 54-hole lead, started the day with a one-shot edge and cruised home. The last player who had beaten him with the overnight lead heading into Sunday was Lefty, in Atlanta in 2000, but it wouldn't happen again this time. They hadn't played together in the final round since the 2001 Masters, when Woods won his unprecedented fourth consecutive major.

Woods, who had a two-shot edge over Mickelson to start the day, shot 4-under 68 and gassed Lefty by six. Mickelson shot 72 and dropped to T4.

Said Woods: "First of all, Phil and I haven't played together in a group that often, and when we do, I think we both relish that and enjoy going out there and competing against one another. That is a lot of fun.

"After his comments, you've got to put that aside. You've got to go out there and play and compete. He's ranked No. 3 in the world, but he's capable of shooting any low number. You have to understand that going out there. You've got to respond to that and respond to that challenge. I felt like I did that today."

He didn't stop responding there, either.

2005 Ford Championship

Doral, Fla.

Doral Golf Resort & Spa

To those who were on hand, this was the apex of the rivalry from a goosebumps standpoint. It was unforgettable, inspired, and really for the first time, the two separated themselves and traded their best jaw-breaking blows all day.

Thousands of fans bought walk-up tickets for Sunday in Miami, a city that loves its stars and ignores mere mortals. The mood was, well, we'll let Woods describe it for you. And remember, Woods isn't one to embroider anything with flowery praise and gushing sentimentalisms.

The two stars, playing a Blue Monster course that was giving up birdies, staged their most brilliant duel ever. They went at it full-throttle.

"It wasn't like a U.S. Open where you just go out and make a bunch of pars and you probably end up winning the tournament," Woods said afterward. "You could not sit on a par. You had to be aggressive on every hole to try to make birdies.

"It was electric, there's no doubt about it. It was definitely bipartisan out there. You could hear Phil's fans, you could hear Tiger fans. They were both yelling at the top of their lungs.

"You know, I told [caddie Steve Williams], 'Stevie, I can't hear you.' When we get to the tee box, my ears are ringing. You guys walked with us; between the green and tee, how loud was it? They are screaming from two feet away from you, screaming right in your ear."

In a word, it was deafening and deservedly so. It wasn't over until Mickelson's near-perfect chip shot to tie on the 18th skirted past the edge of the hole. Woods, age 29, shot a 6-under 66 to win by a shot and reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking.

"What a day," Woods said.

As it relates to fighting Phil, he hasn't uttered those words since.

2007 Deutsche Bank Championship

Norton, Mass.

TPC Boston

Mickelson turned the tables on Tiger at TPC Boston in 2007. (Getty Images)  
Mickelson turned the tables on Tiger at TPC Boston in 2007. (Getty Images)  
It wasn't just that Mickelson played with Woods in the final round and won -- a career first -- it was what transpired beforehand that made it even more meaningful.

Not to mention momentum changing.

Mickelson's two-shot win was one of the biggest of his career for two reasons -- first, he beat Woods in eye-to-eye fashion. Secondly, thanks to swing coach Butch Harmon, he came to grasp why Woods had owned him for so long in the first place.

Harmon coached Woods for years and at last told Mickelson about the tricks that Woods often employs on unwitting partners to gain a psychological edge. It was as though a light went on with Lefty. Ever since, the tide has utterly shifted.

With fans standing six-deep, Mickelson shot down Woods with a near-perfect front nine and hung on to win, finally proving that he had the chops to take down his career-long nemesis.

"I had a lot of fun -- not just today, this whole week," said Mickelson, who closed with a 5-under 66 to win by two shots. "For 10 years I've struggled against Tiger. This sure feels great to go head-to-head."

Added Lefty: "Now the next step is to try to hopefully go head-to-head in a major. We don't get paired very often in majors, and hopefully next year in '08 we'll have a chance to do that."

It took an extra year, but it was worth the wait.

2009 Masters Tournament

Augusta, Ga.

Augusta National Golf Club

First things first in the spirit of full disclosure.

Unlike with the other tournaments on this list, neither guy won. Woods and Mickelson began the day hopelessly behind 54-hole co-leaders Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera and were mostly fighting it out for bragging rights.

Or so most of us thought.

Like in the Duel at Doral, the pair pushed each other along and they climbed the tote board before the leaders teed off, sending fans and the TV broadcasters into an early delirium. As they came jointly to the 17th tee, they were one shot off the lead, having all but erased their seven-shot overnight deficit.

Neither could muster more firepower, however. Mickelson finished fifth and Woods finished T6, but it was still an amazing display of last-ditch dogpaddling from both. Mickelson shot 67 and edged Woods by a stroke on the day.

One U.K. paper described it as "Ali versus Frazier in slacks." But as it turned out, it was merely the undercard. Cabrera beat Perry and Chad Campbell for the title, though Tiger and Phil made the first three hours far more compelling.

2009 Tour Championship

Atlanta, Ga.

East Lake Golf Club

For the record, they both took home a little something. Mickelson won the tournament and Woods cemented the FedEx Cup bonus money. Thus, they posed side by side on the final green, each hoisting a different trophy.

Like in 2000 at the same venue, they weren't paired. Nonetheless, it marked the ninth time that golf's two biggest drawing cards finished 1-2 in a tournament. Mickelson shot a stellar 65 and Woods shot 70.

"I like the way today went," Mickelson said. "I was two back of him, I beat him by three. He gets the $10 million check, and I get $1 million. I've got no problem with that. I just love holding this finally."

He pointed toward the winner's trophy and beamed broadly.

2009 HSBC Champions

Shanghai, China

Sheshan International Golf Club

This was as one-sided as many of their earliest Sunday pairings, but this time in favor of Mickelson, who held off a charging Ernie Els while pairing partner Woods fell hard early and never recovered.

Playing in the final group with his chief rival for the first time in four years, Woods began the day two back and missed short birdie putts on the second and third greens, then drove into the water on the fourth and made a double-bogey. He eventually fell six off the pace, leaving it to Lefty and Els, who shot 63, to slug it out.

"Anything that could go wrong went wrong for me today," Woods said.

Stanza lyrics that Mickelson used to cite with regularity.

2010 BMW Championship

Lemont, Ill.

Cog Hill Golf & Country Club

This pairing, in an otherwise forgettable stretch of the season for both players, was notable only from the standpoint of the head-to-head waters being completely in reverse.

To wit, Woods and Mickelson were paired on Sunday, both were well off the pace of the leaders, and Lefty beat Woods yet again. In fact, over the past eight times the two have been paired, Woods has beaten Mickelson exactly once. In all, their single-day record in head-to-head play stands dead even at 11-11-4, a complete reversal from the early days.

Now that he's aware of Woods' various tricks, Mickelson has consistently had the last laugh. Mickelson matched the low round of the day with a 67 and moved up to T8, while Woods shot 70 after being six shots down to his nemesis at one point early in the round.

"I enjoy being paired with him," Mickelson said afterward. "I was looking forward to today's round playing with him, and we had a good time."

We? Bet he was speaking mostly for himself, knowing Woods.

Where do golf's heavy-footed Astaire and Rogers go from here, now that their comparative dance card is all even?

Hopefully, we'll find out this weekend. Sunday. Late.

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