Woods, Mickelson turning into golf’s old guard

AUGUSTA — It doesn’t seem that long ago when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were the fresh, new faces in golf. They were the up-and-coming stars of the game who would take it to the next level.

And that has certainly played itself out as the two have dominated the game for more than a decade.

That’s right, more than a decade. Woods and Mickelson were once right there where young stars like Camilo Villegas, Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy are — trying to prove their games at golf’s grandest stage — Augusta National Golf Club.

“If you’re asking me if I feel old ... at times I do,” Mickelson said of making his 17th appearance at the Masters. “I do look back and remember how different holes have played, how different putts would break years ago, some changes in the greens.

“And now where the golf course is today, from where it was in ’95 when I played here, it’s remarkable, the changes — all of the trees that have been added, how much longer the course is. But either way, year-in and year-out, it’s always a great test for this great championship.”

Mickelson has passed that test twice, winning in 2004 and 2006.

In 2004, he made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the title, joining Arnold Palmer, Sandy Lyle and Mark O’Meara as the only players to birdie the final hole to win the green jacket. In 2006, Mickelson had four rounds of par of better to win by two strokes.

He has finished in the top 10 in the tournament 11 times in his previous 16 appearances and owns three major titles. Despite all that success, he has found himself, like the rest of golf, chasing Woods.

“Well, I would love to be in the same group as him and walk down the final — walk down together on Sunday, if we are in the final group,” Mickelson said. “Hopefully, we’ll both play well, but we have a lot of golf to play. We have 54 holes where we have to play great golf (to get to Sunday).

“I don’t think that’s a question for him. He’s playing some great golf, and I think he’s going to be there. I think that I’ve been playing some of the best golf of my career, and I believe I’m going to be there, too.”

Woods is playing in his 15th Masters and has won the title four times, joining Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only players to win the tournament at least four times.

Woods became the youngest player to win the event in 1997 when he was 21 years old, and he added green jackets in 2001, 2002 and 2005. Despite recently returning from a long layoff after winning last year’s U.S. Open, Woods is again the favorite to win golf’s first major of the year.

If he can pull off his fifth Masters win, it would be his 15th major title.

“It’s amazing over the years that I’ve been here, just the feelings you get when you come,” Woods said. “It’s just a great feeling to be back. And to know that I’m going to be coming back, it’s an even better feeling. I just remember being here as an amateur and being able to play practice rounds with so many great champions, having guys tell me where to hit it, what angles you want to have.

“But over the years, that’s changed. You don’t have those angles anymore because the golf course has changed. But it is fun to reflect on those times.”

In essence, Woods and Mickelson have become part of the old guard in golf. They’re nowhere near getting ready to play on the Champions Tour, but they’re not part of the young guns group of the game, either.

“Isn’t that amazing,” Woods said before adding what his advice would be to the young stars. “It’s the matter of just gaining the experience of playing more big events. And that will come in time. There’s no hurry. There’s no rush.”