NORTON, Mass. -- Time was, back when Tiger Woods was piling up major championships seemingly every time he stuck a peg in the ground at a grand-slam event, that the once-and-future best player on the planet had the number of a certain left-handed golfer when they played together.
Nowadays? Not so much. And Friday, in the opening round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, Phil Mickelson posted a couple of crooked numbers on the scoreboard to prove just how much the times they are a-changin’.
Lefty, No. 3 behind No. 1 Tiger and No. 2 Adam Scott in the world rankings and FedExCup standings, pummeled the stuffing out of a defenseless TPC Boston to the tune of 8-under 63. Best of all for the reigning British Open champ, he did so while leaving his vaunted playing partners somewhere back in Jersey City.
"I wasn’t too worried about shooting 59," Mickelson said after enjoying a birdie blowout that had him believing for much of his front nine that he could bring it home with that mythical figure. "I was more worried about trying to keep it in the low 60s."
Though he put such flights of fancy aside after a bogey on No. 1 (his 10th hole of the day) and ho-hum pars on the third and fourth, Mickelson was set up to match the course record (61) until a brain fart on his last led to a pull deep into the gorse and his second bogey of the day.
The five-time major champ posted a 6-under 65 in the final round at The Barclays last week and, with a win (2007) and two top-10s in six DBC starts, has enjoyed the heck out of the Massachusetts tourney. But teeing it up with Woods may have been the kick-start he needed to pull ahead in the Player of the Year polling as well as claim his first FedExCup title.
"If I can add a win or two [in the last three of four FedExCup playoff events], I have a realistic chance at Player of the Year, which I’ve never accomplished," said Mickelson, who’ll start Saturday's second session at TPC Boston with a share of the lead. "If I finish with one or two wins this year and win the FedExCup, I think that would be enough to get the Player of the Year."
For sure, Mickelson has made no bones about how he puts on his game face to joust with Woods.
"In the last five or six years, I've had some pretty good success head‑to‑head and I feel like he brings out the best golf in me," Mickelson told reporters ahead of the PGA Championship earlier this month. "He's a great motivator for me."
Mickelson said then that Woods’ success over the years had spurred him to work harder and "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," Mickelson said, "and I hope that we are able to play together for many more years."
The two rivals, along with Scott (who Thursday called himself the "third wheel" of the marquee trio), will have at least one more go at each other on Saturday. But, after his own (by comparison to Mickelson’s energetic start), lackluster effort on Friday, Woods may not have the same warm fuzzies about taking on a guy he used to beat up on regularly.
Indeed, though Mickelson has gotten the better of Woods lately, it was not always thus in the annals of Phil v. Tiger. From their first meeting in the fourth round of the 1997 PGA Championship through the second round of the 2006 PGA, Woods held a 10-5 advantage over Mickelson in 18 meetings (they were even in the other three).
The tide seemed to turn in the 2007 edition of this very tourney, when Mickelson got the better of Woods by just three strokes (200-203) in three rounds on the TPC Boston track and ended up with the W. Since then, Phil has gone on a 7-5-1 run marked most indelibly by his final-round 64-75 shellacking of Tiger last year at Pebble Beach.
At least for Mickelson, the schedulers who assemble the playoff groupings by rankings could not have come up with a more favorable formula to get his race for the $10 million FedExCup jackpot off and running. He may just be tied for the lead heading into the second round, but with Woods carding a 68, he’s 5-up in the all-important Phil v. Tiger column.
"After today," Mickelson said about whether he believed Woods still brought out the best in his game, "it’s hard to think any differently."