Іt felt a little like a warm-up for a WWE cage match instead of the lead-up to the PGA Tour’s showcase event.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, mano-a-mano for 18 holes, two aging legends battling for supremacy.
The idea came from Mickelson, who suggested he and Woods just bypass the first three rounds — along with deepest field in golf — at this week’s Players Championship and go straight to Sunday for a winner-take-all extravaganza.
“Now, I don't know if he wants a piece of me,” Mickelson cautioned.
Woods, speaking later, played along with the good-natured trash talk between two long-time rivals who have evolved into friends. Still true to his alpha dog nature, he also made sure Mickelson realized his place in the game.
“How many times have we won on Tour?” Woods, who has 79 victories to Mickelson’s 43, asked with a smile.
Fans, television networks, advertisers and the Tour certainly would welcome an all-too-rare, final-day duel between Tiger and Phil. For now, everyone will have to settle for a Thursday-Friday pairing and hope each remains in contention come Sunday.
Few first-round pairings in memory will generate the buzz or crowds Woods, Mickelson and Rickie Fowler should on Thursday at 1:52 p.m. at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Rarely has Fowler, one of the game’s most popular players, been a third wheel. But even the 29-year-old is excited to see the matchup.
"I've got the best seat in the house," Fowler said. "It'll be fun. … I know it's going to be crazy out there.”
The golf could be electric, too, even though Mickelson’s recent win in Mexico is the only victory between them since 2013.
Mickelson is coming off a tie for fifth at Quail Hollow, his first four top-five finish in eight starts. Woods had two top-fives himself during the Florida Swing in March, is healthy for the first time in years and ranks inside the top 20 in scoring and strokes gained tee to green.
“I don't know how it's going to play out, but I just know that we seem to be bringing out the best in each other,” Mickelson said. “We've been playing some really good golf lately, and I'm hoping that we have a great week. I think that everybody here wants to see us play well.”
Woods and Mickelson have put on a show a few times before.
Their 2005 duel at Doral was golf at its best. Woods’ 30-foot birdie on the 17th hole moved him to 24-under par and proved the difference, but not before Mickelson’s chip shot on the final hole singed the edge of the cup during a one-shot loss.
At the 2009 Masters, Mickelson got the better of Woods with a front-nine 30 that caddie Steve Williams later called the best golf he’d witnessed first hand, despite being on the bag for 13 of Woods’ 14 major wins.
Mickelson has no illusions about who was better at Woods’ peak during the early 2000s.
“I don't think anybody today who wasn't there that witnessed it, and I don't think anybody before, will ever see that level of play again,” Mickelson said. “It was the most remarkable golf in the history of the game, and I think unrepeatable. And it sucked to have to play against him. It really did.
“You look at it, and you say, ‘… How am I going to beat this?’”
Mickelson eventually would close the gap, due to both his improvement and Woods’ injuries and personal travails. During 35 pairings, Woods posted a better score 16 times and Mickelson 15.
But during their most high-profile pairing, as partners at the 2004 Ryder Cup, both ended up losers, dropping their two matches together and creating the sense a deep-seeded animosity existed.
Each has denied it. Whatever the case, the relationship has never been better.
The two surprised many teeing it up during a Tuesday practice round at the Masters. Woods said the two icons grew closer at the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup, where the injured Woods was a vice-captain and Mickelson a competitor.
Time has played a role, too. After more than 20 years out on Tour, Woods, 42, and Mickelson, 47, have developed mutual respect and arrived at the realization their careers are winding down and there is more to life than golf.
Woods reached out to Mickelson as his wife, Amy, battled breast cancer. When Woods battled injuries, Mickelson checked in on him.
“He always texted me some very encouraging words,” Woods said.
Woods said Mickelson even offered some short-game advice during Woods’ struggles in 2015.
Woods and Mickelson were last paired together a year earlier, during the first two rounds of the 2014 PGA Championship. Woods’ back surgeries have limited the opportunities lately, but putting the two biggest draws in the game in the same pairing simply never seemed to be good for business.
“That's what the Tour wanted,” Woods said. “They wanted to get fans in here on Thursday and then on Friday, so they had one of us in the afternoon either day.”
These days, Tiger and Phil paired together makes more sense than it ever has. Never have the one-time adversaries been closer.