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Gajtka: Phil vs. Tiger Takes a Late, Unexpected Turn at 2023 Masters



There are plenty of truths and opinions to harvest from the 87th Masters Tournament last weekend.

Chief among those: Jon Rahm is the baddest man in golf spikes this year. His game has no weaknesses, in contrast to the increasingly balky putter that scuttled Scottie Scheffler’s chances at an Augusta repeat.

Also, welcome back to major championship competition, Brooks Koepka. He didn’t finish it off, but he sure woke up some echoes of the late 2010s, didn’t he? Amazing what can happen when an athlete is fit to play.

While we’re at it, congrats to Sam Bennett on a massive week before he goes back to carrying his own bag in Aggieland. And Patrick Cantlay … well, he’s probably still pondering an 8-foot bogey putt somewhere so I’ll wait until he finishes before I comment further.

You know what, though? I can’t help myself. Like any proper elder Millenial golf fan, I can’t help checking in on that turn-of-the-century dilemma, even as its number of volumes outpace the Fast and Furious franchise.

Phil or Tiger?

I almost typed out ‘Phil vs. Tiger,’ but that battle has been decided for roughly two decades now. Even if you’re like me and you loathe to compare athletes across eras, we can agree that Woods is the best golfer since fairway woods stopped being made of actual wood.

Mickelson was nipping at Tiger for a couple of years there, most notably in 2006. When Phil won his second Masters that April, he still trailed Woods 10-3 in the major count, but the tally was 3-2 in favor of Lefty over the previous four seasons.

But then Tiger reeled off four more major titles in the next two years, essentially settling the debate. Even when Woods’ serial marital infidelities surfaced and noted family man Mickelson claimed the very next major, at Augusta in 2010, it didn’t feel like a true challenge anymore.

You might think there was a line of demarcation around that point, where Mickelson picked up a few more fans in the wake of Woods’ off-course screw-ups. My feeling, however, is that that never really happened. All the Tiger nuts (like myself) pretty much stayed aboard, even though we might’ve adopted at least a little more respect for Phil.

All that seems like a lifetime ago. For the two principals, it might as well have been.

Woods dropped to the depths of the professional game due to continued back injuries, then rose back up in his early 40s with the help of a novel surgical procedure. Not only did he win a major for the first time in 11 years at the 2019 Masters, he looked poised to have a multi-year renaissance.

But then came more struggles with his back that limited him late in 2020, and most importantly that still-nebulous car wreck in Los Angeles in February 2021 that nearly cost him his leg. As he limped off in a cold rain to another withdrawal last weekend, it’s almost like the ‘return to glory’ never happened.

Mickelson, of course, has suffered his own wounds. And like his erstwhile rival, they have been mostly self-inflicted. Much unlike Tiger, though, none of them have reached into the physical realm, which is where their stories diverge.

If you follow pro golf at all, you know the role Phil has played in the schism between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, with the tentpole major tournaments left somewhere in between. Mickelson’s would-be victory lap after his stunning triumph at the 2021 PGA Championship never really got off the ground, as he decided to take a multi-month step back from public life after his incendiary comments came to light last winter.

Not only that, his game went to pot. Even amidst the shallower fields of LIV events, he’s been unable to compete for anything of note … except attention, that is.

Still, there he was last Sunday afternoon, fist-pumping his way through a back-nine 31 that boosted him into a gobsmacking tie for second place.

The now-lithe 52-year-old was dressed in black, with only the logos of his LIV team (the Hy-Flyers) standing in for where myriad corporate marks once were embroidered.

It’s anyone’s guess where the Mickelson saga goes from here, but as I found myself actually rooting for the man, I also asked myself why.

As a professed Tiger Guy since adolescence, to me Mickelson always felt like the much-less-cool alternative. A younger version of myself found Phil a little too self-aware and, frankly, out of shape to be a suitable sports hero.

Phil’s gone on a journey since then. So have I. I’ve made my mistakes in navigating the first two decades of adulthood, but they’re more like the Phil mistakes — loss of focus, ill-advised candor, etc. — than the life-wrecking indiscretions that Tiger has brought upon himself.

So yes, I find Mickelson more relatable at this stage of the game. Moreover, I wonder if Woods, in his heart of hearts, might actually be a little envious of his not-quite-a-rival.

They say health is everything, and I’m a big believer in that nugget of wisdom. All of Tiger’s trophies can’t help him get out of bed in the morning. Meanwhile, Phil appears to be in the best shape of his life. Like, for real.

Put it this way: I know who I’d rather be over the next 20-30 years. Mickelson isn’t the ironed-on fan favorite of years past. He probably won’t ever be again. I definitely get it, considering his corroboration with the Saudi-backed LIV endeavor.

(I also get that part, too. I once compromised my values, signing on with a morally questionable start-up to benefit my career. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore, but chalk up another life experience that leads me to relate to Lefty.)

Your rooting preferences aside, there is still something remarkable about how Mickelson continues to push back against convention, against age, and blazes his trail. Of course, his trophy case — and everyone else’s — will pale to Tiger’s, but I know which man seems to have won in the quest for longevity.

I certainly didn’t have that 14 months ago, but I suppose it all makes sense. If there was one attribute of Phil’s that always stood out, it was his unpredictability.

(Top photo: Associated Press)

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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