There’s new Woods at Augusta

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By char­ac­ters. Woods and Mick­el­son have been long­time ri­vals, rarely friends and hardly ever part­ners. But it’s not just with Mick­el­son Tiger Woods

DOUG FER­GU­SON

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The power off the tee and the sharp­ness with his short game made him look like the Tiger Woods of old. The smile on his face and the com­pany he kept Tues­day at the Masters — a prac­tice round with Phil Mick­el­son — sug­gested some­one en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

Woods and Mick­el­son had not played to­gether at Augusta Na­tional since 2009, and even then it wasn’t by choice. They were paired in the fi­nal round, and while nei­ther won the green jacket, Lefty shot 67 and got him by one shot.

This time they were part­ners, and it wasn’t a fair fight against Fred Cou­ples and Thomas Pi­eters.

Never mind that Mick­el­son hit his open­ing tee shot at No. 10 be­hind a mag­no­lia tree. Un­like that failed four­somes match they played at Oak­land Hills in the 2004 Ry­der Cup, Mick­el­son had to play the next shot, too.

The two loud­est roars that shat­tered the morn­ing calm came from Woods mak­ing ea­gle on the two par 5s at No. 13 and No. 15.

“I made a few birdies in there,” Mick­el­son said.“We had a five-hole stretch. We were 7 un­der. That was some fun play.”

This was only a snap­shot, and it re­ceived far more at­ten­tion be­cause of the stage at Augusta Na­tional and the two lead­ing

oods has be­come a men­tor to Justin Thomas, Ja­son Day and Rickie Fowler among other young­sters. Long re­spected by his peers as the great­est player of his gen­er­a­tion, he now has formed re­la­tion­ships with them. Padraig Har­ring­ton hardly rec­og­nized Woods at Tor­rey Pines ear­lier this year when he saw him walk onto the range, ex­change a few high-fives and stop to chat. Woods turned 42 at the end of last year. He has been away from golf for much of the last few years be­cause of his four back surg­eries. The Masters will be the first ma­jor he plays since the PGA Cham­pi­onship in Au­gust 2015.

Per­haps, as Har­ring­ton sug­gested, he sim­ply has mel­lowed.

“I think they just missed my sharp nee­dle,” Woods said. “This is just like a fra­ter­nity. When some­body gets hurt and some­one gets sick, we bond. We come and try to sup­port them as best we pos­si­bly can. Be­cause we all know what it takes to be at this elite level.”

Re­gard­less, he has come a long way in a short amount of time. Only last year,Woods said he had trou­ble just sit­ting through the din­ner at the Masters Club of past cham­pi­ons be­cause of pain from his lower back shoot­ing down his legs. That hurt about as much as be­ing at Augusta Na­tional with­out his clubs for the sec­ond straight year, not know­ing when or even if he would re­turn.

The low point came last sum­mer when he was ar­rested on a DUI charge in Florida af­ter po­lice found him asleep be­hind the wheel, his car parked awk­wardly on the side of the road with the en­gine still run­ning. Woods was found to have a mix of pre­scrip­tion pills to help with pain and sleep. He sought treat­ment, and then per­haps the best ther­apy was be­ing among play­ers as an as­sis­tant cap­tain at the Pres­i­dents Cup.

“I don’t know the rea­son­ing, but I think your as­ser­tion that he has a lot of great re­la­tion­ship with a lot of play­ers, I think that’s ac­cu­rate,” Mick­el­son said. “His re­la­tion­ships with the guys on the team are ex­tremely close.”

That in­cludes Mick­el­son, of course.

The last prac­tice round they played to­gether, as best as Mick­el­son can re­call, was 20 years ago at the Nis­san Open when it was played at the TPC Va­len­cia. Mick­el­son tricked him into hit­ting the wrong club late in their match and took $500 off him. If that wasn’t enough, he pho­to­copied the five $100 bills, added smi­ley f aces and wrote, “Just wanted you to know Benji and his friends are very happy in their new home.” And that was their last prac­tice round at a tour­na­ment — un­til Tues­day

oods and Mick­el­son were chat­ting off the 10th tee, and up to the 11th tee, and through­out their nine holes of prac­tice. Mick­el­son tried a va­ri­ety of flop shots around the 15th green with his 64-de­gree wedge, and Woods laughed when Lefty holed one of the more dif­fi­cult shots.

Mis­er­able a year ago, Woods was in a happy place.

And it caused quite a buzz, not only among the thou­sands who tagged along that made this a prac­tice round un­like any other at the Masters, but the other play­ers.

“I walked past Tiger on the range and I said, ’I never thought I would see the day — Tiger and Phil play­ing a prac­tice round at Augusta,’” Rory McIl­roy said. “So we had a bit of a laugh about that. I think both Tiger and Phil have started to take the team stuff a lot more se­ri­ously as they have pro­gressed in their ca­reers, and they have ob­vi­ously be­come very close. ... And it’s great to see two of the top stars of our game for a long time.”

Still to be de­ter­mined is how that trans­lates to com­pe­ti­tion that counts. Mick­el­son al­ready has won this year. Woods is get­ting close. And those young­sters who look up to Woods are among the best in the world.

“I re­ally hope I’m play­ing my best golf,” Woods said. “This is a tour­na­ment where ex­pe­ri­ence does help a lot. I’ve won here not play­ing my ab­so­lute best, but there’s got to be a cer­tain part of my game that’s on.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF PIN­TER­EST

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