The Loop

Tiger and Phil: a study in subtext

April 12, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So let's get this out of the way early: There will be no elbows thrown, no testy exchanges. At no point will Billy Payne have to step in between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and say, "Gentlemen, must I remind you that this is Augusta National, and those sort of hand gestures are not tolerated here."

Sorry to say, I don't even think Woods and Mickelson will humor us with the occasional roll of the eyes at the other's expense.

Instead, when golf's two dominant figures convene on the first tee shortly before 1:35 this afternoon, both seven shots off the lead in the Masters, odds are they will be perfectly civil. They will shake hands, wish each other good luck, maybe even engage in some idle small talk.

The unfortunate reality is that golf's most compelling rivalry features none of the overt signs of hostility that you get in other sports -- the bench-clearing brawl, the assorted insults at family members. Think about it, one of the most contentious moments in the Tiger-Phil relationship was when, in 2003, Mickelson *took a dig at Woods' equipment! * What's next, questioning the other player's choice in fabric softener?

Whether this means the two players genuinely like each other is another matter. But it does mean that in trying to decipher the dynamic between them, you often have to delve below the surface. The same stories keep coming up. The equipment episode. The comments this winter by Woods caddie Stevie Williams in which he said he didn't "particularly like" Mickelson. Some theorize Woods' opinion of Mickelson was shaped by that of his father, Earl, who felt Mickelson received preferential treatment as an amateur. But again, those jabs are either veiled or by proxy -- never so satisying as face-to-face.

And predictably, when the two men were asked to talk about the other earlier this week, their answers were as dry as cardboard.

Tiger: "Phil and I certainly have battled in majors. We have battled in tour events. We have both been successful on both sides,"

Phil: "It certainly is a fun challenge for all of us to try to compete in an era when arguably the best player of all time is playing, and it gives, I think, more credibility to any successes that a player may have."

Of course, in the same interview, Mickelson did concede that of his two Masters wins, the one he cherishes most is 2006, when Woods was the one handing him the green jacket.

"I do have a picture of him sliding that jacket on me," Mickelson said. "That felt good."

By the standard of other sports, that's not exactly bulletin board material. But with these two as they prepare for their final round together, that might be as close as we get.

-- Sam Weinman