|Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods at the National Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, California in February. The duo are together again, playing in the same group for the 31st and 32nd times in their professional careers. (REUTERS)
SAN FRANCISCO - Jack Nicklaus made an appearance Wednesday at the U.S. Open, which was fitting.
The USGA has named the gold medal that goes to the tournament winner after the Golden Bear, and it is building a Jack Nicklaus Room at the USGA Museum in New Jersey. In addition, U.S. golf's governing body has produced a documentary about Nicklaus' first major win, at the U.S. Open in 1962, that will air Sunday night.
It was at the 1962 Open at Oakmont where Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were paired for the first two rounds. Nicklaus went on to beat Palmer in a playoff on the King's own turf, marking the beginning of one of golf's greatest rivalries.
Fast forward 50 years and golf fans are about to be treated, once again, to today's greatest golf rivalry, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They're together again, playing in the same group for the 31st and 32nd times in their professional careers.
They will tee off Thursday morning with Masters champ Bubba Watson at the 112th U.S. Open, and the whole golf world will be watching. So, too, will most of the 33,500 spectators in attendance at the hilly and tough Olympic Club, which should make it quite a spectacle.
The dynamic duo has played together at big events before, most notably the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Mickelson won the opening round 71-72, but Woods trounced him 68-75 in the second en route to his third U.S. Open and most recent major victory. Mickelson and Woods are 13-13-4 in head-to-head battles, which can be riveting because of the mind games that come into play.
There's nothing better than having the honour, that feeling of supremacy. Step up to the tee and really give it a whack, and you're in the head of your opponent. On the flip side, it's easier to not think about getting smoked when the guy smoking you isn't teeing off ahead of you all day. There are other games to play, too, like putting out first so the crowd moves before the other guy finishes.
Mickelson and Woods both have good reasons for wanting to tame the long, narrow and curvy Lake Course this week, other than their inherent competitiveness. Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open five times. He needs a win to erase the horror of 2006, when he blew his shot at victory on the 18th hole at Winged Foot.
Woods, meanwhile, is seeking his first major in four years -- an eternity for him. He would be able to move past so much baggage in his life, from the sex scandal to the spate of injuries, if he is the one hoisting the trophy on Sunday night. It would also give him 15 majors, just three shy of Nicklaus.
If they're both at their best, Mickelson believes they will be together for all four rounds.
"The one player I'm most concerned about if I play my best golf who may have a chance to beat me is Tiger," Mickelson said.
He's right. Defending champion Rory McIlroy, Watson, world No. 1 Luke Donald and No. 3 Lee Westwood are all fine players, but they are not Tiger or Phil. Even though Mickelson turns 42 Saturday and Woods is 36, we're still in the midst of one of golf's great rivalries, a la Arnie and Jack, so be sure to soak it up.
The previous time they played together was in February during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Mickelson shot a 64 and won the tournament. Woods wobbled to a 75. The difference now is Woods is playing much better, and he can also chew on this quote from Mickelson, who was asked this week how he felt after the Pebble victory.
"I don't know the feeling that I had when I left, but I certainly had a nice crystal trophy," he said. "That was nice."
The first shot had been fired, and they hadn't even teed off yet.