It’s impossible to think about Tiger Woods playing the 2022 PGA Championship and not consider the absence of his most-heralded contemporary, Phil Mickelson. It’s also impossible to think about either of them and not consider how absurd it would have been to insinuate, 51 weeks ago after Mickelson won the 2021 event, that Tiger would be the one getting early prep work at Southern Hills while Lefty continued a months-long sabbatical for non-health reasons.
The two have always been as intertwined as they were contrasting. Literal books have been written about the subject, and you can list the ways in which they’re polar opposites almost reflexively. They make oil and water seem compatible.
Tiger, right-handed, is singular and ever the loner. Mickelson, left-handed, is almost unable to be understood outside the context of always having people around him. Tiger is conservative and almost understated on the course. Mickelson is, uh, not. Tiger pushed his body to the limit, and it betrayed him. Mickelson has rarely missed time due to injury. If you drew up contemporary rivals this divergent, nobody would believe you.
Their only common bond has been success: winning, making money and doing it for an extraordinarily long time. As their peers have aged into other golf lives beyond the PGA Tour, they have both endured excellence. Despite a combined age of 97, Woods and Mickelson have both won major championship trophies more recently than Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. That’s an absolutely remarkable feat for anyone, much less two guys who started playing PGA Tour events when their younger peers were in diapers (or not yet born).
Mickelson was treading water this time last year. He went into the week of the 2021 PGA Championship without a top 20 finish since August 2020. He was playing bad golf and had more missed cuts (three) than top 25s (two) in the seven events leading into the second major of that year. When he went to Kiawah Island, he was a champion in name only (and a great one at that), and yet he did the only thing that week that he’d done for the previous three decades. He showed up. He went to the first tee on Thursday and believed something special was going to happen. It was a comically deluded level of self-belief, to be sure, but it also worked.
This time 52 weeks ago, you would have howled at the idea of Mickelson winning that PGA. You’d probably have called for my job had I predicted it. And you would have been right to do so. Then, impossibly, Lefty took down Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen at a venue built for men half his age.
Woods, meanwhile, was simply trying to walk this time last year. He recently recounted days in his backyard where he laid on the turf listening to the birds chirp, simply elated to be alive.
This is how they both operate. Tiger takes time away to recuperate and shows up when he’s ready. Lefty never stops showing up. His win count is in some ways a war of attrition. Woods has shown up a lot less than Mickelson over the course of his career (current worldwide tournament count goes to Mickelson, 712-419), but he’s won a lot more when he’s been there (22% to 7% for Tiger).
Phil’s great skill is showing up. Tiger’s is decimating the field when he does.
The back half of Tiger’s story is the opposite of Phil’s. When Woods played, he was great. That’s always been true. He’s never really had periods of poor play over the last 25 years. He’s had plenty of periods of not play at all, though, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to injury, scandal, recovery and simply wanting to be with his family more than wanting to perform for a sports nation.
As Mickelson kept appearing, Woods kept vanishing.
Now, it’s Lefty who has not been heard from in months. The contrast continues with Mickelson and Woods, except they have completely exchanged roles. As with Tiger last year, we don’t know when Lefty will resurface, when we will hear from him again, if we will hear from him again. There’s a tragedy to Mickelson’s story with which Woods can surely identify.
What we do know is that you can’t win if you don’t contend, and you can’t contend if you don’t show up. If Mickelson taught us anything about historically great players at the PGA Championship last year, it was exactly that.
Woods is showing up at the PGA Championship the same way Mickelson showed up at last year’s event: with no chance of winning. He’s showing up because something might happen. He’s showing up because he loves golf and takes his status as a champion of this event seriously.
Woods claims he doesn’t show up to play unless he believes he has a chance to win, but there’s nothing about his game over the last 18 months or his performance at the Masters that would suggest he even has a prayer.
Then again, that exact same sentence could have been written about Mickelson this time a year ago.