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Hot or cold, Tiger and Phil show they're masters of Augusta

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Knowing their way around the course gives Phil and Tiger a leg up at Augusta. (Getty Images)  
Knowing their way around the course gives Phil and Tiger a leg up at Augusta. (Getty Images)  

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Granted, the naivety of the query is fairly obvious. The admitted absurdity is, too.

But that doesn't mean it's a meritless question.

Year after year, the two biggest names in the sport, at least in the patron-popularity rankings, trek to Augusta National and no matter the state of their game, rarely disappoint. Be it scandal, medical malady, derogatory airplane banners overhead, malaise in their performance or sore legs, the Masters is akin to a B12 shot for both.

Clearly, there's something unique about the DNA of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson that makes them fixtures at the season's first major every April, right?

"Other than being the two best players in the game?" Jack Nicklaus cracked.

Call us oblivious, but we meant beyond the obvious.

2012 Masters

Between them, they have amassed 112 PGA Tour victories and 18 major titles, ranking first and second in those columns among active tour players. But there's more to it than just being better than the rest; it's about why they are unfailingly at their best.

Woods seemingly can fall out of bed and contend at Augusta, and no, that's not a scandal joke, for once. Mickelson could play right-handed and feel like he had a chance. Everything emanating from every pore during tournament week radiates confidence.

"I've gone into Augusta with wins and without wins," Woods said last week. "You're looking for one week, that's all. Just hopefully, everything comes together for that one week.

"I understand how to play Augusta National and it's just a matter of executing the game plan."

These two have been executioners, indeed.

No player has been so publicly open about his rollicking Masters playbook than Mickelson, who once won with two drivers in his bag and employs a style he uses at no other venue. Simply put, he swings at max effort off the tee because the penalty for a miss is comparatively minor.

Like Punxsutawney Phil, Mickelson springs out of his burrow at Augusta National regardless of the temperature reading on his performance gauge. It has become a personal espresso shot, as evidenced by his mostly unexpected victory in 2010, when his wife was suffering from the debilitating effects of chemotherapy and his world was in a state of upheaval. Somehow, Mickelson won the Masters for the third time in seven years.

"There's a ton of reasons as to why I've played well there consistently year-in and year-out, whether I'm sharp or not," Lefty said. "The biggest reason is that you don't have to be perfect there."

Translated, he means, "wheelhouse."

Mickelson, 41, could just as sensibly have been describing Woods' game over the past decade, too. Both made a habit of visiting the trees with a driver in hand, but at the National, as the locals call it, that's not a deal-breaker. In fact, it's hard to lose a ball at Augusta, something that doesn't always translate to the TV viewers.

"If the average player goes out and plays Augusta National, he can play his normal game and he always has a shot," Mickelson explained. "He can be in the pine needles and the trees don't hang down to the ground. He can be in the rough and there's no rough, it's first cut. You always have a chance and you all have a shot."

These two are just a shade better than average, of course.

"Their knowledge for the course is ridiculously high," said world No. 4 Hunter Mahan, a frequent practice partner with both. "They know all the nooks and crannies and where all the pins are and they know where to miss the ball. They just know."

Phil and Tiger know that other players know that they know, too.

The thrust of the Mickelson theorem is true -- the trees at Augusta, for the most part, are towering pines with branches several feet above the ground. With the side sauce he and Woods can put on a ball, they can carve it through and get the ball close to the green almost without fail.

"I'm able to get away with being less than perfect there because I can still advance the ball up by the green and rely on my short game as well as my knowledge and experience of where I can and can't go," Mickelson explained, animatedly. "Put the ball in the right spot and then execute the right shot around the greens to salvage pars."

The fact that Woods and Mickelson are regarded as two of the best with a wedge and putter in hand plays right into this notion, too. In fact, it has been often noted that while Woods has been a habitual contender, he hasn't won since 2005, and his putter is largely to blame.

At some point, Woods, 36, somewhat lost the plot on the greens, including last year, when he moved into a tie for first midway through the final round only to three-putt the 12th hole for a bogey -- one of six three-jacks for the week. He ranked T32 for the week in putting, marking the fifth time in his six winless years at Augusta that he was outside the top 20 in that category.

Which isn't to remotely suggest that he didn't make a run at the green jacket. After spending six straight weeks holed up at his home outside Orlando in early 2010, Woods rubbed the rust off his clubs and emerged for his first tournament in months at Augusta, then willed his way into contention, finishing T4. Cold putter or not, he hasn't finished worse than T6 since he last won the green jacket in 2005.

Woods will surely get to test his mental mettle again this week. On the eve of the tournament, two major media outlets dropped reputation-nuking stories about Woods into the electronic story pond, one of them shredding Woods for being the same selfish person he was before the scandal, and the second noting that Woods has a half-brother with a life-threatening illness who can't get Tiger to return his calls. With all that personal noise, small wonder that Woods finds sanctuary between the ropes at Augusta.

In his new book The Big Miss, former Woods swing coach Hank Haney marveled at how well his client played in 2010, considering how ill-prepared he was compared to his usual standard. Haney and caddie Steve Williams had doubts as to whether Woods could break 80. Until he shot a career-best 68 in the opening round.

His life might have been a train wreck in transition at the time, but Augusta represented a veritable touchstone.

"Tiger has been going there since 1995," Rory McIlroy said. "Of course, the place has changed a little bit from then, but I think going back to a course year after year, you've become very comfortable with it and I think that's part of the reason [they have excelled]. You have good memories."

There's also a tangible physical advantage here that's worth underscoring. Like Nicklaus, a six-time Masters winner, Mickelson and Woods have enough strength to hike the ball miles in the air with any club, which is always an advantage at Augusta, where the par-5 holes are generally reachable in two shots. For a lower-horsepower player like former Masters winner Zach Johnson, those are three-shot holes and the margin for execution error is much smaller.

At one point, Woods and Mickelson combined to win five times in six years at Augusta, and the one guy who broke up the party was Mike Weir, another lefty. As it turns out, Mickelson fervently believes that port-siders have a huge advantage at Augusta because of the way the layout is designed.

A handful of holes favor a left-handed fade, and the fateful par-3 12th, where righties K.J. Choi, Angel Cabrera, Luke Donald and Woods all made bogeys or worse in the final round to wreck their title chances last April, is also more forgiving to a left-hander.

"A lot of holes are right-to-left for him and that could be a little bit easier for a left-hander, hitting a cut, especially some of those holes like 10 and 13 where you have to hit it around the corner," McIlroy said.

Mostly, though, players trying to both wrest the trophy and arrest their dominance find their advantages harder to define.

"They just seem to have always had great touch and great feel, especially Phil," McIlroy said. "He's so imaginative around the greens and that's what you need at Augusta."

It's sort of a magical thing, like the spring in the step Woods and Mickelson get whenever they drive to the clubhouse door.

"I just love playing there and there's only a few courses in the world that I get excited just to go play," Mickelson said.

That's manifestly obvious, for both of them.

"If you beat both of those guys that week," Mahan said, "you are probably going to win that tournament -- or be pretty darned close."

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