PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson simply peaked too early. Their best moments came in the days leading up to the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship.
Their strong performances in the interview room didn’t carry over to the first tee, unfortunately. They traded barbs in their pre-tournament press conferences but didn’t trade birdies in the first round at TPC Sawgrass.
On a day when low scores were plentiful at the Stadium Course, no one in the first round’s premiere pairing broke par. Mickelson shot 79, while Woods was the threesome’s low man after an even-par 72. Rickie Fowler shot 74. The trio of former PLAYERS champions was 9 over par on a day when the scoring average was 72.0.
With his focus squarely on Sunday’s result, Woods said he wasn’t thinking about beating his playing partners. Everyone else was, though. Even if it was a Thursday, there were high hopes for the sort of mano-a-mano showdown that was a rarity during their primes.
Both players had been playing well enough to make that seem feasible. Mickelson had won earlier this year and was coming off a fifth-place finish at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship. Woods is showing his best form in five years after fusion surgery.
Woods saw the plethora of low scores before he teed off Thursday at TPC Sawgrass. Red numbers seemed easy to come by on a hot day that allowed the ball to fly far and made the Stadium Course play short.
“We had to go out there and tear this place apart,” Woods said. He couldn’t, but plenty of players did. He will start Friday six shots behind the half-dozen players who shot 66: Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Alex Noren, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Cantlay.
In light of the struggles from this star-studded threesome, it may have been Mickelson’s attire that made the biggest news. He played Thursday in a button-down shirt similar to the one he wore during his Masters practice round with Woods.
“I think nobody does kind of slightly overweight middle-aged guy better than me, and this says exactly who I am,” Mickelson said.
But fans were hoping Woods and Mickelson could turn back the clock. This was their first time playing together in four years. The last time they played at the Stadium Course, it was one of the most historic days in the tournament’s history. They were paired in 2001’s third round, when Woods produced the “Better Than Most” putt.
Previous generations were treated to memorable showdowns between the top players. Arnie and Jack were forever linked after Oakmont. Nicklaus and Watson had the Duel In The Sun. The Hall of Fame careers of Woods and Mickelson overlapped for decades, but there weren’t many memorable meetings. They were often paired on opposite ends of the draw on the weekdays and Woods was simply too dominant on the weekends.
“If you grew up in my generation, that was the closest thing I ever saw in a rivalry in golf, but we didn’t see that pairing often,” said Charles Howell III.
Time has leveled the playing field between Woods and Mickelson, though. Age has introduced a warmer relationship between the two longtime competitors. There is a mutual admiration instead of an obsession with beating the other.
There was the post-victory hug at the Presidents Cup and their pre-Masters practice round, two events that once seemed as likely as airborne swine. The prelude to THE PLAYERS Championship was a more jocular version of the pre-fight banter between two heavyweights.
Mickelson recommended a high-stakes match between the them, sending golf fans’ imaginations into hyperdrive. “Now, I don’t know if he wants a piece of me,” Mickelson joked. Woods silenced Mickelson with a quick reference to the history books.
But they stung like butterflies and floated like bees once they stepped into the ring at the Stadium Course on Thursday afternoon. There were momentary highlights, but they were quickly erased by Pete Dye’s penal course.
Woods made eagle at the ninth hole to return to even par with the easier back nine ahead. He could only manage two birdies and two bogeys on that side, though.
Mickelson was even par after birdies at 11 and 12, but he played Nos. 14-17 in 7 over par after rinsing shots at both 16 and 17. Fowler was even par when he joined Mickelson by hitting into the pond surrounding the island green.
“I was worried about energy this week, and I just kind of ran out at the end,” Mickelson said.
Woods, Mickelson and Fowler should have even easier conditions when they tee off at 8:27 a.m. Friday morning, but it’s likely too late for Mickelson, who needs a minor miracle just to make the cut. Woods will start the second round on the cut line and will need a low number to enter the weekend in contention.
This was Mickelson’s third-highest score in 81 rounds at TPC Sawgrass. He shot a final-round 82 in 1999, then opened the 2000 PLAYERS with an 83. He shot a third-round 78 in last year’s PLAYERS.
He only beat two players Thursday. The Woods-Mickelson matchup must wait for another week.