AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 3 (Reuters) - Relations between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, once viewed as ‘The Big Chill’, have grown into a warm ‘bromance’ between the two leading members of golf’s old guard.
The pair, intense rivals on the golf course in their heyday, had a rare date on the grounds of fabled Augusta National on Tuesday as they played a practice round ahead of the Masters, the year’s first major championship which starts on Thursday.
Mickelson, nicknamed Lefty, could not remember the last time they played a practice round together outside of national team competition, but the two giants of U.S. golf over the last two decades had fun, enjoyed each other’s company and thrashed Fred Couples and Belgian Thomas Pieters in their practice match.
“He’s very easy to be around and I enjoy our time together,” three-time Masters winner Mickelson, 47, told reporters.
“We laugh, we tell stories, we’re both self-deprecating, and yet we can both throw in a little jab here and there. And we just have fun together.”
Four-time Masters champion Woods said time had tempered their rivalry.
“Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” said Woods, 42. “I think it’s just age as well. We’re at the tail end of our careers, we both know that.
“We have had a great 20-year battle, hopefully we’ll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1. That was then and certainly this is now.”
Mickelson thought Woods’ immersion in working with the U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams during his injury absence as a player had helped cement their friendship.
“I believe coming together to work together for a common goal of having success in the Ryder Cup has brought us closer, and it started about two and a half, three years ago,” he said.
“Preparing for that, coming up with a game plan, we were talking almost on a daily basis, and I thought that was kind of the impetus where we really started to work well together.”
Mickelson’s last major success came at the 2013 British Open, while Woods’s last major triumph was a mind-boggling 10 years ago at the 2008 U.S. Open. Yet the ageing duo still come to Augusta as legitimate contenders.
Mickelson snapped a five-year win drought last month at the WGC-Mexico while Woods, hampered by back injuries in recent years, has been closing in on ending his five-year tournament win dry spell with promising results in his latest comeback bid.
They showed off their still strong skills during a practice round that proved a delight for Tuesday’s biggest gallery.
Woods eagled the par-five 13th and 15th holes and Mickelson showed off his short game prowess with pitch-perfect lob shots.
“I made a few birdies in there, we had a five-hole stretch, we were seven-under. That was some fun play. I thought we did a good job partnering up,” Mickelson said.
Woods acknowledged to reporters that Mickelson had reached out to him during some low moments in his recuperation from back injuries, while the left-hander said he had long appreciated all that the 14-times major winner had done for golf.
“I think that nobody respects and appreciates what he’s done for the game more because nobody’s benefited from what he’s done for the game of golf more than I have,” said Mickelson.
“I’ve always had that appreciation and respect for him. To see him back out playing is incredible. We all feel that.” (Editing by Ken Ferris)