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A Phil & Tiger Masters (non) Preview

This isn’t a Masters preview. Instead, the Masters is a great excuse to analyze the most compelling guys there—Tiger and Phil. Specifically, this is a look at Mickelson’s career through the lens of Tiger.

The genesis of this piece was back in February at, ironically, the Genesis Open. I was parked on the couch watching golf and scrolling through twitter when a specific tweet (which I cannot find) caught my eye. It essentially posed a question to the effect of “wouldn’t it be just like Phil to win while Tiger is making this amazing comeback?” My immediate reaction was of course, but it made me want to dig in and look closely at Mickelson’s numbers during different points of Tiger’s career.


A few quick notes before diving in:

– All stats are compiled using numbers off PGATour.com

– Calculating average finish, missed cuts are assigned a 120th place finish and w/d’s were removed altogether (neither guy had enough to materially impact things)

Ok, here we go…

THE PRE-TIGER YEARS (July 1992 to August 1996)

“When I came out on tour, in 1992, or when I won the Tucson Open [as an amateur] the purse — the entire purse — and the winner’s cheque was $180,000. I remember thinking in the mid-90s, ‘I wonder if someday we’ll play for a million dollar first-place check. I don’t know, probably not in my lifetime, but I hope we do.’” -Phil Mickelson to David Feherty, on Golf Channel’s “Feherty” (March 2017)

Mickelson’s first pro start was in the spring of 1992 at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open. He missed the cut going 68-81 in the first two rounds, an apt microcosm of his tortured relationship with the event. For all intents and purposes, these were halcyon days out on Tour. Annual money leaders were pocketing somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, the OWGR was an eclectic mixture of body types, swing types, and personalities, and the equipment was relatively antiquated, at least by today’s NASA-lite standards.

Much was expected of Mickelson after a storied amateur career, and he settled into a good amount of professional success. Along with eight wins in four years, he had dope sponsorships, exquisite hair game, and scored a cameo in Tin Cup. Below are Phil’s key performance metrics from this specific time period:

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Era
Starts 95
Made Cut % 73.7%
Avg. Finish 48.5
Wins 8
Win % 8.42%
Majors 0 for 13
Avg. Finish 40.5

His talent was indisputable, his game was good and it was a foregone conclusion he’d nab a major sooner rather than later. But Tiger was coming, and I’m not sure anybody outside Eldrick’s inner circle understood what that would mean for both professional golf and Phil Mickelson.

HELLO WORLD (September 1996 to November 1998)

“…And now we do every week, and that’s because of Tiger.” -Phil Mickelson to David Feherty, on Golf Channel’s “Feherty” (March 2017)

Tiger’s first start was Milwaukee at the beginning of September 1996 but the first time he and Mickelson crossed paths as professionals was October of that year at the Las Vegas Invitational. There Mickelson played good golf finishing T8 but Tiger proved better capturing his first tour win. This little connection between the two pops up again and again throughout their careers, to the point it’s hard to believe it can all be coincidence.

Tiger announced his arrival to the world at Augusta in 1997 and nothing was the same in pro golf. To put the changing economics in context consider this—in the five seasons between 1992 and 1996 there were twelve total instances of a player finishing a season with more than $1.5 million in earnings on the PGA Tour. In 1999, the season immediately following Tiger’s ‘Hello World’ period, TWENTY-FOUR different guys earned over $1.5 million for the year (including Ted Tryba!!!).

How did Mickelson’s game shift during this period? As you see below, somewhat surprisingly, he was remarkably similar to the player he had been before Tiger arrived. A bit more consistent week to week but otherwise not much change, and of course, no majors yet.

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World
Starts 95 48
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7
Wins 8 4
Win % 8.42% 8.33%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9

Tiger then ramped up his game to peak levels. I was very curious to see what Mickelson did in response.

#PEAKTIGER (January 1999 to April 2004)

“Alright, alright” -Phil Mickelson, 1st tee box, 2002 Tour Championship

I encourage everybody to click the link above to watch the clip from the 2002 Tour Championship. It’s such an innocuous, legitimately funny quip, yet conveys so much about where each player found themselves at the time. Tiger was the unquestioned, absolute King, and it had to be eating Phil up inside.

Before we look at Mickelson’s performance during Tiger’s run, here is a quick rundown of some of my favorite Tiger numbers during this five-year stretch:

– didn’t miss a single cut. Not one ‘off’ week in over 5 years.

– won 33 PGA Tour events

– won 7 major titles, including the ‘Tiger Slam’

average finish in twenty majors was 10.7. His average finish across all PGA Tour starts was 8.96. Basically lived in the top-10 for five years. Again, staggering.

Tiger was at the height of his craft. Before I ran the numbers I would have guessed Mickelson’s game took a step back during this time. I think that’s because his reputation as the loveable loser, guy who couldn’t get over the hump in majors was firmly taking root in the public’s mind at this time.

Here are the stats:

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World #PeakTiger
Starts 95 48 126
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4% 88.9%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7 29.2
Wins 8 4 9
Win % 8.42% 8.33% 7.14%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8 0 for 20
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9 25.8

Phil’s performance really ticked up! He was making more and more cuts (leading to a higher average finish), his win rate held impressively steady, especially given Tiger’s deal, and his major finishes improved drastically. It’s easy to remember this period as one of near-misses and ‘what-ifs’ for Phil, but in hindsight, that’s not nearly the whole story. It’s eye-opening to see the degree to which he stepped his game up, in direct response to Tiger. Now he just needed to break through at a major…

THE ‘JUMP’ (April 2004 to June 2006)

“I would not have played as well as I have throughout my career had it not been for him…he’s the one that got me started working out back in 2003…” -Phil Mickelson, on the Dan Patrick Radio Show (March 8, 2018)

Pun intended. Mickelson of course broke through at the 2004 Masters. His celebratory leap as the winning putt dropped marked a huge jump in his game. I submit that people don’t appreciate how good Phil was during this period. Here are the stats:

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World #PeakTiger The ‘Jump’
Starts 95 48 126 48
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4% 88.9% 93.8%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7 29.2 23.7
Wins 8 4 9 7
Win % 8.42% 8.33% 7.14% 14.58%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8 0 for 20 3 for 10
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9 25.8 11.9

Continued uptick in cuts, average finish dropping, and look at that win rate! Nearly 15% in the age of Tiger. And the majors, there were three of them, with several other good looks. For comparison’s sake, Tiger won 8 times in this stretch, including 2 majors and an average major finish of 20.3 (note: includes a missed cut at the 2006 US Open; not counting that he was at 9.2). Bottom line, while Tiger was off his ridiculous peak, Phil was truly standing in the middle of the ring trading punches with Tiger as a legitimate rival.

But then came Winged Foot…

ICARUS (June 2006 to November 2009)

“I still am in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot.” -Phil Mickelson, as quoted by Alan Shipnuck for Sports Illustrated (June 26, 2006)

Phil Mickelson stood on the tee of the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open needing to make par to win. Besides his first U.S. Open, a win would make Mickelson the fourth player in the modern era to hold three major championships at the same time (along with Tiger, Jack and Hogan). Alan Shipnuck, of Sports Illustrated, summed up best what was really on the line in his SI cover story:

“A win at Winged Foot would propel Mickelson to next month’s British Open with a chance to do the unthinkable: match Woods’s greatest feat, the Tiger Slam, which is to hold the titles of all four major championships spread across two seasons. More immediate, a victory at the Open would leave no doubt that Phil had surpassed Tiger as the game’s dominant player.”

We were all cheated having not gotten to experience what that British Open would have been like as Mickelson went for a ‘Phil Slam.’ A crescendo of hype, publicity and hoopla. Team Tiger riding hard vs. Team Phil. An awesome setting for two of the game’s greats. But alas.

Do you remember who won the British and PGA immediately following Winged Foot? Tiger. I absolutely believe he gained strength from Mickelson’s pain and disappointment. It’s also another little instance of that thread which again and again binds these two.

The numbers for Mickelson in this period are as follows:

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World #PeakTiger The ‘Jump’ Icarus
Starts 95 48 126 48 66
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4% 88.9% 93.8% 86.4%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7 29.2 23.7 35.4
Wins 8 4 9 7 9
Win % 8.42% 8.33% 7.14% 14.58% 13.64%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8 0 for 20 3 for 10 0 for 13
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9 25.8 11.9 35.6

A few less cuts but he kept that healthy winning percentage. Biggest takeaway is the major scar tissue from Winged Foot.

THE FIRE HYDRANT (January 2010 to September 2013)

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what to say there.” -Phil Mickelson, as quoted by Tim Dahlberg in the San Diego Union-Tribune (April 7, 2010)

Thanksgiving 2009. I won’t rehash the details but suffice to say everything changed. Again. Tiger took time away to start the 2010 season, finally making his debut at Augusta. And who was there to win a major after Tiger’s pain and embarrassment? Phil. His first major title since before Winged Foot. The thread connecting these two…

2010 to 2013 was a weird time for Tiger. He made a swing coach change, battled through injuries, and was much more inconsistent than he’d ever been. The wonderful Jaime Diaz, writing for Golf Digest in 2015, does a marvelous job explaining the steady de-evolution of Tiger:

“Well, I have a theory, admittedly speculative and uncomfortable for many, who would rather—almost as much as Woods—not go there. But it’s based on the relevant history of a historic figure, the only thing that seems proportional in scale to what has ensued: The scandal that changed Woods’ life after Thanksgiving of 2009.

The line of demarcation is clear, because as a golfer, Woods has not been himself since. I believe it’s fair to posit that the trauma of being publicly shamed changed him. Before, he possessed the right makeup for a dominating champion. Ever since, he hasn’t.”

Mickelson was up and down during this time. He played consistent golf but captured less wins. Save for the aforementioned Green Jacket in 2010, his highlights included decimating Tiger during the final round at Pebble Beach in 2012, a couple on-brand U.S. Open close-calls, and one magical Sunday at Muirfield in the 2013 British Open.

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World #PeakTiger The ‘Jump’ Icarus Fire Hydrant
Starts 95 48 126 48 66 85
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4% 88.9% 93.8% 86.4% 89.4%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7 29.2 23.7 35.4 33.3
Wins 8 4 9 7 9 5
Win % 8.42% 8.33% 7.14% 14.58% 13.64% 5.88%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8 0 for 20 3 for 10 0 for 13 2 for 16
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9 25.8 11.9 35.6 32.5

A quick note on that British Open win–2013 happened to be a season in which Tiger had found some old form and would win Player of the Year on Tour. I don’t think these two things are an accident.

GLUTES DEACTIVATED (October 2013 to January 2018)

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it? 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.” -Phil Mickelson, as quoted by Ian O’Connor on ESPN.com (April 8, 2014)

Tiger’s body wouldn’t hold up past the 2013-14 season and he shut it down to the point where I was convinced he was done. His swing looked awkward and seemed painful. The wind was out of the sails for golf fans everywhere.

And for Phil as well. He was fighting through a slew of ailments and travails, not least of which probably Father Time, and his game mega-slumped:

Phil Mickelson: Pre-Tiger Hello World #PeakTiger The ‘Jump’ Icarus Fire Hydrant Glutes Deactivated
Starts 95 48 126 48 66 85 84
Made Cut % 73.7% 85.4% 88.9% 93.8% 86.4% 89.4% 82.1%
Avg. Finish 48.5 34.7 29.2 23.7 35.4 33.3 41.0
Wins 8 4 9 7 9 5 0
Win % 8.42% 8.33% 7.14% 14.58% 13.64% 5.88% 0.00%
Majors 0 for 13 0 for 8 0 for 20 3 for 10 0 for 13 2 for 16 0 for 15
Avg. Finish 40.5 43.9 25.8 11.9 35.6 32.5 54.3

Mickelson was like the old dog whose longtime partner passed away and now was resigned to the same fate (this is the plot to Where the Red Fern Grows, yeah?) Mickelson had some major close calls (’14 PGA, ’16 British), but the overall game was down at levels not seen since pre-Tiger. He missed his white whale, his source of inspiration.

THE LAST HURRAH? (JANUARY 2018 to TBD)

Phil broke his five-year winless streak last month in Mexico and Tiger is the favorite to win the Masters. Crazy. Much has been written by folks more talented than me about each of these things, so I’ll quickly wrap this with two Lefty quotes I believe speak to where his mind is heading into this weekend and beyond:

“I feel like he [Tiger] brings out the best golf in me.  He’s a great motivator for me.  He’s helped me work hard.  He’s helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level year‑in and year‑out, and I’ve loved competing against him.  He’s really brought the best out of me, especially when we’ve been paired together, and I hope that we are able to play together for many more years.”  

“So I’m as motivated as ever to compete and to play and get the best golf out of me to hopefully play against Tiger when he’s playing his best.  That would ultimately be the goal; if I can play as well as I can at the same time he’s doing the same, I would love that opportunity.” -Phil Mickelson, August 6, 2013, PGA Championship

As this is technically a Masters preview, here’s my official prediction: I don’t know. But I sincerely hope Tiger plays well enough to win. Why? I have a sneaky feeling it’ll be the precursor to Mickelson finally getting his U.S. Open. It’d be just like him to do it that way.

 

(Header photo image credit to CANNON/GETTY)

About the Author

Perma-case of the yips inside 5 feet. Completely lose my swing at least once a year. No concept of what a good leave is. Harbor delusions of golf grandeur.

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