SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y — The 40-40 club will be front and center this week at Shinnecock.
No longer the red-hot weekly rivals they’d been over the previous two decades, Tiger Woods, now 42, is seeking to win his first major title in a decade, while Phil Mickelson, at 47, is still chasing his first U.S. Open title (after six runner-up finishes) to complete the career Grand Slam.
“We’re certainly on the back end of our careers,” Woods said when asked about Lefty on Tuesday. “We’ve been going at it for 20-plus years. That’s a long time. We’ve been ranked 1 and 2 and have gone at it a lot of times throughout the years. And we’ve developed a pretty good friendship because of it.
“Phil’s won ump-teen tournaments all around the world and he’s finished second at this event six times. Of all the events, you would think this would be the one event he would have the least chance to win, because of the way he’s driven for most of his career. But that short game of his is off the charts. A U.S. Open is about wedging. He can spray it a little bit here and there, but you have to be able to get it up and down from 100 yards. We’re all gonna face it. And he’s been one of the best of all-time at doing that. So he’s made some of the more difficult pars that you have to make to win this championship. It’s just that he hasn’t, but he’s come so close. For him to be able to somehow pull it off at his age, I don’t think it’s ever been done at that age. But also to complete the career grand slam, it would be an unbelievable task and an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Woods typically had the largest practice-round gallery on Tuesday and spoke to a packed interview room before his first Open appearances since 2015, while recent winners of majors — such as Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka — all drew considerably smaller crowds.
“It's not really for me. It's to the game in general… It adds a whole 'nother level, for sure,” Spieth said of Tiger’s presence. “I think it's great for the sport, but he’s not here because of that. He's here because he loves the game and he loves to compete and he wants to win. And that's what he's been obsessed with, and it's what's driven him, and it's why he's so successful.
“But the kind of extra to that is that it's good for the rest of us. He, like Arnie (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus), are in that elite company that have shifted the game and made it popular and made the way of life significantly different for professional golfers. We certainly owe a lot to him. But that doesn't mean that anybody wants to take it easy on him if they're coming down the stretch with him.”
Day, the 2015 PGA winner, added that he considers “the biggest story probably” of the week to be Woods, despite a star-studded field of past champions.
“Not taking anything away from Phil because winning the career Grand Slam is absolutely huge, and I know that he's been so close so many times now,” Day said. “But for what happened to Tiger, it's been 10 years, what he did in that period of when he dominated, and I think a lot of people are kind of chomping at the bit for him to come back and do something special. Seeing if he can get back to winning and beating Jack's record (of 18 major titles). I think a lot of people will probably be more excited — well, a lot of people will look at that more so than Phil's.
“So I think he's pretty much ready. He's primed and ready for this week. So it would be pretty cool to see that. But, obviously, I don't want that to happen, because I want to win.”