Tiger vs Phil: How Rivals became Friends

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have in recent years turned their once frosty relationship into a bromance, raising money for charity and sharing light-hearted trash talk. What a journey they’ve been on.

They are the dominant players of their generation, with Tiger winning 82 PGA Tour titles and Phil 44, the only players born after 1965 with more than 20 victories. They are first and second on the Tour’s all-time earnings list, and both have finished in the top ten in 60% of the major championships contested since 1993, with Tiger winning 15 to Phil’s five.

Tiger held the top spot in the rankings for 661 weeks, while ‘Lefty’, the greatest player to have never held that accolade, mainly due to Tiger, was ranked No.2 for 270 weeks and stayed in the top 50 for a staggering 26 straight years.

Tiger and Phil, now 44 and 50, are in the twilight of their careers, and their once icy relationship has thawed. After Tiger’s comeback win at the 2019 Masters, Phil even left him a note on a cocktail napkin. “Tiger, so impressive!” the note read. “So happy for you!”

In May 2020, Tiger and Phil played ‘The Match: Champions for Charity’ at Medalist Golf Club, Florida, paired with Super Bowl champions Peyton Manning and Tom Brady respectively. Team Tiger held off a late comeback to win by a single hole and the match raised over $20 million for Covid-19 relief efforts.

Ahead of the match, Phil poked fun at Tiger during a video call by showing a photo of him receiving the green jacket from his greatest rival. Tiger then brought out the actual green jacket he still had as defending Masters champion.

During the contest, when Phil asked Tiger to mark his ball, Tiger said: “You want me to mark with a US Open medal?”. “I have some silver ones,” Phil replied, referring to his record six runner-up finishes at the only major he hasn’t won.

It was the second iteration of their partnership that began in 2018 when they played ‘The Match’ at Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas. Phil won that made-for-tv contest after 22 holes, including four playoff holes, and took home $9 million. But due to various side bets made on the course between the two, such as nearest to the pin, the match raised almost $2 million for charity.

The current detente between golf’s superpowers wasn’t always the case. Phil had already won nine PGA titles before Tiger got his first, but by 2001 he was still without a major and was paired with Tiger at Augusta on the final day when Tiger completed the feat of holding all four majors at the same time. 

Tiger’s long-time caddie Steve Williams recalled how Tiger hit his 3-wood at the par-5 13th way past Phil’s driver in the final round. “Do you always hit your 3-wood that long?,” Phil asked. “Normally further than that,” replied Tiger. “That shot just deflated Phil’s ego, and he couldn’t bounce back,” Williams said. Phil would finish third. 

Three years later, pairing them together for the first time at the 2004 Ryder Cup almost guaranteed points, but the adversarial duo lost both their matches as Europe lifted the trophy, and they have never been paired together since. 

A few barbed comments were shared as the rivalry intensified over the next few years, with Tiger’s laser-focused demeanour in contrast to Phil’s man-of-the-people popularity. From 2004 to 2006, they combined to win seven majors and 16 other PGA Tour events. In 2005, Phil slipped the green jacket onto Tiger; in 2006, Tiger returned the favour.

From 2008 onwards, both endured a drought at the majors due to Tiger’s back injuries and Phil’s loss of form, until the 2013 Open at Muirfield when Phil captured his fifth. Tiger, though, backed away from giving compliments, saying “the course was gettable”.

But the statistics show, as is often the case with great sporting rivalries, the two have mostly brought the best out in each other. Phil particularly has talked about how Tiger pushed him to be a better player, and the numbers back that up.

They’ve played in the same grouping 38 times on the PGA Tour, with Tiger 54 under in those situations, and Phil 34 under. Between 2005-2014, Phil averaged 1.36 strokes gained per PGA Tour round, but when playing with Tiger that almost doubled to 2.61. Similarly, Woods has averaged 2.01 strokes gained per round, but when grouped with Phil, it rises to 2.17 strokes.

There have been 31 occasions when both Tiger and Phil have been within five shots of the lead going into the final round of a big event. Tiger has won 10 of those; Phil nine, including the 2010 Masters and 2013 Open.

Eventually, mutual admiration between the pair grew. By the mid 2010s, as Tiger’s back injuries took their toll, his temperament softened. “When I was trying to deal with the nerve in my back, trying to come back and trying to play and I wasn’t very good, he always texted me some very encouraging words,” Tiger said.

Then Tiger was appointed vice-captain on the 2016 Ryder Cup team, which included Phil. “Our relationship turned around 2016 when we were working together for the Ryder Cup,” Phil said. “We spent a lot of time on the phone. When we worked together for a common goal, it brought us closer.”

At the 2018 Masters the two golfers played a practice round together, 20 years after they had last done so, and they were grouped together for the first two rounds of the Players Championship that year. Currently, Tiger is out of action for at least a month following surgery to his back, but let’s hope they renew their rivalry this season.

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