OF ALL the people to pay the most glowing tribute so far this week to the absent Tiger Woods, you’d have been excused for thinking that Phil Mickelson would be the unlikely source.
The pair, after all, have never exactly come across as bosom buddies and there was a complete lack of chemistry when Hal Sutton, America’s “Captain Cock-up”, put them together for the opening session in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.
It was Mickelson, though, who sat in the interview room at Augusta National yesterday and spoke openly about how much Woods will be missed at this week’s Masters and also how he personally owes the world No 1 a debt of gratitude for his own fame and fortune.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here,” admitted the Open champion of Woods, a four-time winner, missing the season’s opening major for the first time since 1995 after having surgery on his back last week.
“He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I also hope he’s back for the other majors this year. As much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”
Mickelson, who made his major breakthrough in this event ten years ago and is attempting this week to join both Woods and Arnold Palmer in claiming a fourth Green Jacket, went on to illustrate how much the face of golf had changed due to the impact of Woods on the sport.
“What he’s done for the game the last 17 years as a professional is incredible,” observed Mickelson. “I’ve told him that nobody has benefited more from having Tiger in the game than myself.
“I remember when I was an amateur and won my first tournament in Tucson, in 1991, the entire purse was a million dollars, first place $180,000. My manager and I sat said ‘I wonder if in my lifetime, probably not my career, would I ever play for a million dollar first-place cheque’. Now it’s every week. It’s unbelievable what has happened with the growth of this game.
“And Tiger has been the instigator. He’s been the one that’s really propelled and driven the bus because he’s brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest, and we have all benefited. But nobody has benefited more than I have. That’s why we miss him so much; we all know what he’s meant to the game.”
Nine months on from winning the Open Championship for the first time, Mickelson reckons that Muirfield victory can help him be a prominent figure in all of this year’s majors, which will include a chance to complete the grand slam in the US Open at Merion.
“It’s already had an amazing impact for me because I feel different,” he admitted of that triumph in East Lothian, a week after he had also won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart. “I feel like a more complete player because I won the British Open. Even though I believed I could win it, I always felt like there might be a shortcoming.
“It took me a little longer than I had hoped but I’m very appreciative to have won that tournament that involved playing a style of golf I never grew up playing. That was going to be my biggest challenge.”
In yesterday’s practice round, Mickelson was thrown down a challenge by a spectator at the sixth green and found himself having to borrow money from one of the caddies in his group after losing the bet – for a dollar. “He was mouthing off, saying ‘this is a hard shot, get this up-and-down, no chance, blah, blah, blah’,” laughed Mickelson. “It wasn’t that hard a shot and I should have gotten it up-and-down. But, after hitting a good shot to leave myself with a seven-footer uphill, I missed it and I had to pay him. That’s what happens when you lose.”
While happy to cough up, Mickelson needed help to do so. “I had to get five dollars from a caddie as I don’t (carry small bills),” he added.
Mickelson admitted he’d prefer to be heading into this week’s event on the back of some better form. He also pulled out of the Valero Texas Open under a fortnight ago after suffering a strain. However, the 43-year-old was surprised how quickly he has managed to get back to feeling 100 per cent fit again.
“Last week I felt great, which I was surprised about after pulling a muscle in Texas. I had been doing physio ball work and stuff to strengthen my back every morning, every night, for weeks and weeks to make sure that I enter this week feeling good, healthy and I’m able to swing as hard as I want and hit the shots that I need to try and hit.
“So physically, I feel great. The parts of my game, if I break them down, also feel terrific but I haven’t put them together this year. I haven’t had the results to fall back on so I’m certainly nervous, because this is a week that I care about the most.”
Talking of confidence, Mickelson has played a part helping Stephen Gallacher arriving here for his Masters debut with a putting stroke capable of coping with the undulating and lightning-fast greens, having recommended to the Scot last year that he should start working with short-game guru Dave Stockton.
“Stephen and I played together at the PGA Championship and I believed that Dave was the right guy to help him and I think he has,” said the world No 5. “Stephen is a wonderful ball-striker and since he started with Dave on his putting he looks like he’s going to make putts now and that’s going to be a big asset for him here.”