It’s impossible to think of Tiger Woods playing the 2022 PGA Championship and not think of the absence of his most famous contemporary, Phil Mickelson. It’s also impossible to think of either one and not consider how absurd it would have been to suggest so 51 weeks ago after Mickelson won the 2021 eventin Southern Hills while Lefty continued on a month-long sabbatical for non-health reasons.
The two have always been as intertwined as they have been opposites. Literal books have been written on the subject, and you can almost reflexively list how polar opposites they are. They make oil and water appear compatible.
Tiger, right-handed, is unique and always the loner. Mickelson, left-handed, is hard to understand out of context, always having people around. Tiger is conservative and almost understated on the pitch. Mickelson is, uh, not. Tiger pushed his body to the limit, and he betrayed it. Mickelson has rarely missed time through injury. If you lined up such different contemporary rivals, no one would believe you.
Their only common bond was success: winning, making money and doing so over an exceptionally long period of time. As their peers have aged into other golf lives beyond the PGA Tour, they have both endured excellence. Despite sharing a shared age of 97, Woods and Mickelson both has won major championship trophies more recently than Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. That’s an absolutely remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone two boys who started playing PGA Tour events when their younger peers were in diapers (or weren’t yet born).
Mickelson was treading water this time last year. He went into the week of the 2021 PGA Championship without a top-20 finish since August 2020. He played poor golf and missed more cuts (three) than finished in the top-25 in the seven events leading up to the second major of the year (two). . When he went to Kiawah Island he was a champion in name only (and a great one at that), and yet this week he did the only thing he’d done in three decades. He showed up. He went to the first tee on Thursday believing something special was about to happen. It was a weirdly deluded level of confidence, but it worked.
This time 52 weeks ago you would have cried at the idea of Mickelson winning this PGA. You probably would have called about my job if I had predicted it. And you would be right about that. Then Lefty Brooks defeated Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen at a venue built for men half his age.
Woods, on the other hand, just tried walking around this time last year. He recently recounted days in his backyard, lying on the lawn listening to the birds chirp, just thrilled to be alive.
That’s how both work. Tiger takes his time to recover and shows up when he’s ready. Lefty never stops showing up. In a way, his win count is a war of attrition. Woods has appeared a lot less over his career than Mickelson (current worldwide tournament count goes to Mickelson, 712-419), but he’s won a lot more when he’s been there (22% to 7% for Tigers).
Phil’s great ability shows. Tiger decimates the field when he does that.
The back half of Tiger’s story is the opposite of Phil’s. When Woods played, he was great. That has always been true. He’s never really had a bad game in the last 25 years. However, he has had many periods where he has not played at all for a variety of reasons including injuries, scandals, recovery and simply a desire to be with his family rather than perform for a sporting nation.
While Mickelson kept reappearing, Woods kept disappearing.
Now it’s Lefty, who hasn’t been heard from in months. The contrast continues with Mickelson and Woods, except they have switched roles entirely. As with Tiger last year, we don’t know when Lefty will be back, when we’ll hear from him again, When we will hear from him again. There is one tragedy in Mickelson’s story that Woods can certainly relate to.
What we do know is that you can’t win if you don’t fight, and you can’t fight if you don’t show up. If Mickelson taught us anything about historically great players at last year’s PGA Championship, it’s that.
Woods is showing up at the PGA Championship the same way Mickelson did at last year’s event: with no chance of a win. He shows up because something might happen. He comes because he loves golf and takes his status as champion of this event seriously.
Woods claims he doesn’t show up to play unless he thinks he has a chance to win, but nothing about his game over the past 18 months or his performance at the Masters suggests he even has a prayer.
On the other hand, that exact sentence could have been written about Mickelson a year ago at this time.