The dominating duo

Tuesday, April 03, 2007
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

It's become a common sight at the Masters Tournament.

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Arnold Palmer put the green jacket on Jack Nicklaus after the 1964 Masters.


Phil Mickelson slipping the green jacket onto Tiger Woods. Woods slipping it back onto Mickelson.

The bets are rolling in that the pattern will repeat itself Sunday. The oddsmakers like Woods' chance of winning a fifth Masters slightly more than Mickelson's chance to become the fourth repeat champion. Either way, they dominate the pretournament hype as usual.

Not since Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus traded green jackets between 1962 and 1965 has the Masters enjoyed a rivalry like this. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead took turns helping each other don the blazers between 1951 and 1954.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson offers much illumination into why they've been swapping green jackets and hoarding majors the past few years.

"He deserved it," Woods said of Mickelson.

"He's good," Mickelson said of Woods.

Jack Nicklaus put the green jacket on Arnold Palmer after the 1964 Masters, returning the favor from his 1963 win.


Their mutual grasp of the obvious notwithstanding, Woods and Mickelson have made it a habit of being in position to win majors more often than any of their peers. They own five of the past six green jackets. They've captured six of the past eight majors - and you can make a strong argument that they should have won eight in a row, with each coughing up bountiful opportunities in the past two U.S. Opens.

One or the other has finished first, second or third in all but one major in the previous three seasons. The lone exception was the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where Mickelson couldn't muster anything on the back nine and finished sixth.

What makes these two champions the most likely to succeed at every major venue?

"Between their confidence and their short games, I think it's hard to look much past that," said Charles Howell, a native Augustan who would desperately like to disrupt the pattern this week.

It might be as simple as that. If you draw up a list of the players who possess the best attributes in each area of the game, Woods and Mickelson might be the only two players to rank in the top five of every category.

Putting? Check.

Phil Mickelson puts the green jacket on 2005 Masters winner Tiger Woods.


Short game? Check.

Power? Check.

Creativity? Check.

One thing often overlooked is that they both mastered the fundamentals of the game before the latest technological explosion. They learned how to shape shots using clubs less suited for the task than today's specialized equipment. That makes them less one-dimensional than younger players who came after them and are more prone to let the equipment do the work.

In the major championships, players are challenged by course setups and situations that call on them to create something they're unaccustomed to seeing on a regular basis. That's when the range of talent that Woods and Mickelson possess gives them the edge that makes the difference.

"I think they both learned the game and then they took advantage of technology," said Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing instructor. "I think it's the deep arsenal. That's when you throw out all the tricks and go with some good basics."

Tiger Woods puts the green jacket on 2006 Masters winner Phil Mickelson. The scene was reversed in 2005.


Where Woods and Mickelson differ is on their approach to using the new technology. Mickelson was famously hammered for claiming Woods was using "inferior" equipment, but the truth is that he was complimenting Woods for lapping the field without using the latest technology.

Woods is slower to embrace the latest fads; he tends to be comfortable with what has worked so well for him.

"If I really wanted to use raw power, I'd go to a spinnier ball and a lighter-shafted driver like most of the guys and get an extra 20 yards," Woods said recently.

Mickelson, on the other hand, works constantly to use the latest technology available. He raised eyebrows with his two-driver strategy at Augusta last year and deployed a 64-degree wedge in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot that gave him a chance to win.

"By identifying a need and using the technicians to fill that need, I've been able to hit those shots a lot easier," Mickelson said of the strokes he crafts for specific major venues. "I have a different club to hit those shots as opposed to trying to create some great way to get some club that's not designed for those shots to work."

In the end, both have learned to do whatever is necessary to give them chances on Sundays at majors. Mickelson's three major titles have come in successive years. Woods has collected four of his 12 in the past two.

At Augusta, the course and the tournament seem to be tailor-made for their blend of power, touch and imagination.

"We both feel comfortable on the golf course," said Woods. "We both have, I think, decent short games, and that golf course - one of the very few golf courses where we can utilize our imagination and creativity - you look at most of the guys who have gone through there and won, they have all got wonderful short games."

Now all that's left is for both of them to put it together in the same Masters. Nicklaus and Palmer never did. Snead and Hogan dueled once in an 18-hole playoff in 1954.

Mickelson escorted Woods on Sunday in his culmination of the Tiger Slam in 2001 but never put the heat on. Woods couldn't summon the challenge he needed to make Mickelson sweat last year.

"Just the way it works out," Woods said. "Golf is a little bit on the fickle side that way."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or