Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson: Playing lessons with the pros

Sam Greenwood

The doctor is in: Tiger offers Rory some sage (we’re sure) advice on how to play his way out of the hazard he finds his game in, while Strick tips Tiger on his putting, and Phil -- well, Lefty just wants to help everyone.

Tiger Woods the elder has had some words of wisdom for Rory McIlroy as his young protege seeks a way to regain his championship form while scratching out a way to get his game out of the rough and back on the short grass.

While Woods maintained a vow of silence regarding exactly what he said to the world No. 1, Steve Stricker was downright chatty about the putting tips he shared with Tiger ahead of Thursday’s first round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

And then there’s Phil Mickelson. His mentoring of Keegan Bradley is legend so it was hardly surprising to see him giving an impromptu, post-round lesson on the ins and outs of chipping off cart paths, Lefty-style.

These guys aren’t teammates. Just the opposite; they’re out there trying to take millions of dollars from each other each week, yet they still take the time to play coach when colleagues seek them out.

It’s just something you do, said Stricker.

“Although we are competitors, we are friends,” Stricker, whose pre-tourney tutoring had Tiger putting like a machine at TPC Blue Monster on Thursday. “And you like to see your friend do well, and sometimes you need another pair of eyes.”

Stricker learned that lesson long ago, after a day in which he could not find the fairway off the tee. None other than Jack Nicklaus took him aside for an after-school refresher course.

“He’s like, ‘I’ll meet you on the range,’ ” Stricker said after an opening-round 5-under 7 that put him one shot back of the 18-hole lead held by Woods and four others. “I had made the cut and he hadn’t. He just took time to help me...and figure some things out.”

Without the hour-long practice session with his long-time Ryder Cup partner, Woods’ putting woes may have carried over from last week’s Honda Classic and -- who knows? -- Stricker might have owned the first-round advantage. Instead, Woods drained nine birdies, needed just 23 putts overall, and looked in prime form ahead of next month’s Masters.

“Whatever he says, I'm going to do. He's one of the best putters that's ever lived,” Woods gushed about the 46-year-old Stricker who’s playing a reduced schedule as he eases into semi-retirement. “He got me into the same posture that I was at Torrey [when Woods won the Farmers Insurance Open last month]....He can see the things that are off a little bit, because he knows my stroke so well. Just gave me a couple little things to think about, and, lo and behold, I started feeling just like I did at Torrey and the ball started rolling.”

Woods, for his part, acknowledged that he and McIlroy had chatted -- which was obvious, given the smiles they sported as they strolled the greensward side by side on Thursday. But that was just about all he would say.

“We've talked a little bit, yeah,“ Woods conceded. “But am I going to share what we discussed? No.”

Woods observed that his new Nike stablemate seemed to be fighting his swing but, as someone who has had a bit of experience adjusting his motion, counseled patience with the changes.

“I don't think he's quite drawing the ball like he used to, like he wants. Maybe just a little bit defensive out there,” Woods said. “When you play golf for a very long time, you're going to have spells like this. You can't play well every week, even though you try. You're going to have up-and-downs and just got to battle through it.”

So why, really, is each of these guys so ready to lend a helping hand, and another set of eyes? It’s a tradition unlike any other in sports, according to Woods, who seems to have taken McIlroy under his wing even as he tries to unseat him from atop the rankings.

“Friends help each other out, and Steve and I have been friends for a long time,” said Woods, currently No. 2 in the world but bearing a remarkable resemblance to his former world-beating self this week. “This is what we do. We always try and help out each other, and whether it's one generation to the next or it's your current competitors, whatever it is.

“It's just the nature of our sport,” said Woods. “We just do that.”

As for Mickelson, look for his new “How I Do It” video on YouTube.

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