REPORT: Statistics proved that Phil Mickelson upstages the Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy at the Masters.

May 17, 2024

LIV rebel rolled back the years with a final-round flourish but futures of the two biggest names in golf are up in the air

Masters week in April is always a long one in Augusta. The Monday before the major, all the talk around the course was about Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who were out playing a practice round together. Whether it really was or not, their pairing felt like a pointed rejoinder to the LIV golfers who were still arriving at the course. Woods and McIlroy aren’t just the two biggest names in the game, but the two most outspoken critics of the breakaway tour. And here they were, taking ownership of the biggest stage.

Augusta National is a spacious place, but when Woods and McIlroy are out and about there’s not a lot of room left for anyone else.

Jon Rahm overhauls Brooks Koepka to win Masters on dramatic final day

Phil Mickelson hadn’t even turned up yet. He arrived a day later, when Woods and McIlroy dominated the agenda again with their pre-tournament press conferences. Usually Mickelson would do one too, but not this year. He cut a strange, and solitary figure, he gave one short, jittery interview in which he repeatedly insisted how brilliant everything was. “Everyone has been wonderful. Everybody here is so classy. Gosh, it’s fun to be here.” According to other guests at the champions dinner that evening, Mickelson sat at the far end of the table and didn’t talk to anyone.

Since he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in 2021 and switched across to LIV, Mickelson’s form has been dismal. He’s had two top 20 finishes in 10 tournaments. He’s seemed a little lost, and, to be honest, has come across a little like a man in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Come the Monday after the Masters, all that seems a lot longer than a few days ago. Woods and McIlroy were both missing on Sunday evening, exit stage left, and so far as anyone was talking about either of them, it was to wonder, or worry, about what lay ahead. Woods had quit that morning, after flogging himself through 43 holes in two and a half days of play. He explained that he had “aggravated a previous plantar fasciitis injury” in his right foot, but the truth is that if it hadn’t been that which finished him, it would only have been some other injury instead.

Woods’s body simply isn’t up to playing 28 holes in a day, like they did on Sunday, not on these hills, even in better weather. His caddie, Joe LaCava told as much to the New York Post just a couple of days earlier. “I can’t imagine trying to go 27-plus holes around here,” LaCava said. “He’s pretty banged up. If it wasn’t Augusta he probably wouldn’t be playing.” Woods said himself that every time he plays in the Masters he asks himself whether it might be the last time. After this week, it’s clear that every round he plays here from now on is going to be a bonus.

If Woods’s future is uncertain, McIlroy’s is too, in a very different sort of way. He’ll definitely be back here next year, but after he missed the cut , you have to wonder if he is ever going to get what he wants from this tournament. If Woods’s problem is with his body, McIlroy’s is in his mind. He knows it, too. “I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament,” he said on Tuesday. No one disputes it. “But it’s being in the right head space to let those physical abilities shine through.” Or that bit, either.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who played a practice round together before the Masters, both struggled to find their best game. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

It has been 12 years now since McIlroy blew his four-shot lead on the Sunday here, and for nine of them he has been chasing the grand slam. In that time, he has tried playing Augusta National every which way. There was the year he was obsessed with meditation, the year he was obsessed with his method, and the year he was spending all his time in the gym. There was the McIlroy who had been reading self-help books, and the McIlroy who was studying swing science. He’s tried talking up how much winning here would mean to him, and he’s tried playing it down.

At this point, it is beginning to feel pathological. He seems to have lost the tournament every which way a man can. This year’s was one of his very worst yet. Woods keeps telling McIlroy he just needs to be patient. “It’s just a matter of time. Rory has the talent. He has the game. He has all the tools to win here. It’s just a matter of time.” McIlroy doesn’t seem to entirely agree with him. “They said the same thing about Ernie Els and Greg Norman.”

Come Sunday evening, it was Mickelson who lit up Augusta, with his dazzling final-round 65, which left him tied with Brooks Koepka in second place. It was his best result here since 2015. But maybe more importantly, he proved to himself, and everyone else. “It was really a lot of fun for me to play at this level again,” Mickelson said. It was for everyone watching him, too. “I know after missing last year, to be here this year, it means a lot to me and it means a lotto be a part of this tournament going forward.” He finished the week an Augusta favourite again, back in everyone’s affections. A lot has changed in seven days.