A Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson buddy rivalry on the course could provide the best theater

I don't blame Phil Mickelson for starting all of this. He went first with his press conference on Tuesday, and in a theme that has permeated 2018, playfully took a few jabs at Tiger Woods. We saw this at the Masters, and we're seeing it again this week at The Players Championship.

Mickelson's demeanor, as it was at Augusta and as Woods' demeanor following him matched, was humorous, maybe even a bit sly. After 20 years of super serious conversation from each of these guys about the other, the first few months of 2018 have been a breath of fresh air.

"I love that we're paired together," Mickelson said on Tuesday. "I think it's really fun. We haven't been paired together in years. As I look at the cover of the newspaper and the pairing is on there and the excitement that's been going on around here, it gets me thinking, 'Why don't we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head to head and have kind of a high-stakes, winner-take-all match?' Now I don't know if he wants a piece of me, but I just think it would be something that would be really fun for us to do."

Tiger's response was equally classic.

"I'm definitely not against that," responded Woods. "We'll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable."

But he wasn't done there. About Mickelson's "piece of me" line, Woods smiled.

"First of all ... big picture. How many times have we both won on tour?"

The answer of course is 79 for Woods and 43 for Mickelson, and it's pretty easy to imagine Phil's brother and caddie, Tim, showing him the video of this exchange and Phil laughing pretty hard at it.

Tuesday's quips were both an extension of their personas as well as representation of an apparent newfound buddy rivalry between two of the best to ever play the game. Mickelson was rambling, verbose and humorous. Woods went straight to the punch line. Their pressers matched their personalities (as well as their games), and I for one am enjoying these new angles to old characters. 

But you know what would be even better than trading barbs in the interview room on a Tuesday? Trading haymakers on a monstrous course for a Players title on Sunday. There is a chance this could happen, of course. Both golfers have won here in the past, but both have had a mixed bag of late.

Overall, Mickelson has one win (2007) and two other top 10s here but none since he won. He's also missed four of his last five cuts at Sawgrass and once exclaimed "I was thinking to myself as I was walking around, `I can't believe I've actually won here,'" after missing a cut a few years back.

Woods has fared better. He has two wins (2001, 2013) and six other top-16 finishes. But he's only played once since he took down Sergio Garcia five years ago.

It's rare that so big a tournament has produced only three wins among these two icons. That's the nature of maybe the deepest field in the sport, though. It usually produces great winners, but rarely does it produce the same champion over multiple years.

Mickelson and Woods will play together over the first two days this week, alongside Rickie Fowler. There will be too many people following that group for even Bryson DeChambeau to calculate, and it will be a celebration of nearly 50 combined years of astonishingly good golf. It will be a treat. I will enjoy it.

But what would be even better is a late tee time for these two on Saturday or (even better!) on Sunday. The one-liners won't flow as easily then, but a buddy rivalry like this one deserves an on-course marker for the future. It might not come this week, but with the Mickelson-Woods relationship beginning to crest, it would sure be amazing if it did.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories