SAN FRANCISCO — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson often bring out the best in each other’s games. Just don’t expect any friendly conversations when golf’s greatest running rivalry resumes at the U.S. Open.
Luckily, there’s a guy in their group with a pink driver and a green jacket to lighten the mood.
Woods and Mickelson will play with Masters champion Bubba Watson for the first two rounds beginning Thursday at The Olympic Club. It will be the first time Woods and Mickelson have been paired in the championship since Torrey Pines in 2008, when the USGA grouped players off the world ranking.
In typical fashion, Woods brushed off any notion that his playing partners will affect how he plays. Mickelson, meanwhile, couldn’t stop gushing just thinking about all those giddy fans and camera clicks that will surround the ninth hole when he, Watson and the 14-time major champion tee off just after dawn.
Leave it to one of golf’s grandest stages to bring such contrasting personalities together.
“It’s fabulous,” Mickelson said. “First of all, I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it’s time to tee off on Thursday I’ll be ready to play.”
“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” he said. “This is a major championship. We’ve got work to do. Any extra motivation? No. I’m just trying to get out there and position myself for Sunday.”
And so the chase begins.
The pair last played together about a two-hour drive down the California coast at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson whipped Woods and rallied to win in February. In the majors, Mickelson topped him in the final round of the 2009 Masters won by Angel Cabrera, though Woods beat him soundly at Torrey Pines on his way to winning the U.S. Open.
Mickelson has been on the wrong side of history at this tournament.
A record five-time runner-up for the national championship, Mickelson has had more painful, exhausting — and perhaps embarrassing — moments taking on “golf’s toughest test” than maybe any player with his resume.
Chief among them: Mickelson entered the 18th at Winged Foot in 2006 with a one-shot lead. After a tee shot into the merchandise tents left him a decent lie, he tried to carve a 3-iron around the tree, didn’t pull it off and made double bogey to finish one shot behind.
“What an idiot I am,” he famously said afterward.
Mickelson is embracing his latest chance to end the drought against his longtime rival.
The only real hiccups in his game that he would disclose is feeling “mentally lethargic” in the first two rounds of PGA Tour events. With Woods staring at his every shot, he has promised that won’t happen at the start of the 112th U.S. Open.
Perhaps playing with Woods can cure whatever ails him.
“The one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger,” he said. “And the fact that we are on the same wavelength, I’m always in favor of. Sometimes we’ll get a huge advantage in tee times, based on weather conditions or whatnot. If we’re in the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage.”
Whatever pressure Mickelson faces is overshadowed by that of his counterpart.
Woods is still the most accomplished — and watched — golfer of his generation. His mastery at Muirfield Village two weeks ago — the 73rd victory of his PGA Tour career — makes him the betting favorite at Olympic Club to get his 15th major, first since the 2008 U.S. Open, and resume his quest of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
Then again, Woods’ win at Bay Hill made him the pre-tournament rage at the Masters. He ended up in a tie for 40th, kicking his clubs and cussing all over Augusta National.
One can only imagine what the tight, twisting fairways on the unleveled Lake Course could bring out of him this week.
“It’s such a test playing in this championship,” Woods said. “I think this is one of those championships that I think the guys talk the least to one another because it’s so difficult.”
At least one guy won’t be quiet.
Watson enters the group as perhaps the most overlooked Masters champion at the U.S. Open in recent history. The shot-shaping master, not an immediate fan of Olympic Club’s tree-lined fairways and tiny greens, will have a front-row look when all the action begins — and he’s more than excited about the pressure not being on him.
Together, his playing partners have 113 PGA Tour victories and 18 majors.
“It’s going to be like Sunday at the Masters,” Watson said. “Huge galleries … two legends.”
One U.S. Open at stake.