Why are some people so invested in “The Match”?
Well of course the names Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson speak for themselves. But there’s another component: It doesn’t seem like we’ve seen them play head-to-head in high-stakes moments that often.
For the two preeminent players of their generation, Woods and Mickelson have appeared to post an awful lot of their wins without the other in the picture battling at them. That may be true, but that’s golf’s depth and unpredictability for you.
And whatever the perception, there have been plenty of tense and exciting Tiger and Phil battles over the years. Here’s a list of the best showdowns (based on a combination of entertainment value, drama and what was at stake) between the two we’ve seen:
• • •
12. 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
Woods often got the better of Mickelson in showdowns, and even when Lefty would defeat his counterpart head-to-head it was a battle to do so.
This was the exception. Mickelson began the final round six shots back of Charlie Wi and Woods was four behind. Mickelson and Woods were paired together and Lefty went on a tear, playing his first six holes in 5 under to take the lead.
From there, it was pretty much over. There was a moment on the par-3 12th where Woods holed a greenside bunker shot for birdie to potentially get a two-shot swing and move within three. But Mickelson drained a 30-footer for par on top of him. Lefty would spend the remainder of the round fighting off others, firing a stunning 8-under 64 for a two-shot win. Woods, meanwhile, struggled to a 3-over 75 and a tie for 15th.
Maybe not a whole lot of drama here, but it was a rare Woods beatdown by Mickelson. It was an important moment and plenty entertaining.
11. 2000 Tour Championship
In the Year of Tiger, Mickelson proved the rare spoiler here.
Woods began the final round tied for the lead (and one ahead of Mickelson) and hadn’t failed to close out a 54-hole lead in four years. Oh, and he’d already won nine times on the PGA Tour that season.
An unfazed Mickelson battled hard, though, and drained an 8-footer for birdie at the par-5 15th for the solo lead. Woods couldn’t match, later made a bogey and was forced to score a hole-in-one at the last to force a playoff with Mickelson. He could only manage par, meaning Mickelson used a 4-under 66 for a clutch two-shot win.
10. 1998 Mercedes Championship
A bit of a forgotten one here.
Mickelson began the final round with a one-shot lead and was five clear of Woods. This would turn into a tight battle, though, as Mickelson, Woods and Mark O’Meara were all tied for the lead after the latter two birdied the 10th. Mickelson would birdie Nos. 9, 10, 12 and 13 to pull away just enough and would hold on for a one-shot victory over Woods and O’Meara.
Still, Woods closed in 8-under 64 to give Mickelson a furious challenge. Lefty needed an impressive 68 just to hold on for a thrilling season-opening triumph.
9. 1999 WGC-NEC Invitational
This one was kind of an odd one, as Woods was seven ahead of Mickelson and held a five-shot lead overall entering the final round.
Uncharacteristically, he struggled with that large margin that Sunday. Mickelson posted a 5-under 65 from behind and Woods’ lead was only one as he played the 17th.
Then the killer Woods stepped up as he snuck in a 15-footer for birdie at the 17th to take a two-shot lead to the last. A two-putt bogey on 18 would secure a one-shot win over Mickelson.
Woods got the hardware, which is what matters most, but Mickelson beat Woods by six shots on that day.
8. 2001 Masters
Woods and Mickelson were in Sunday’s final group at a major, tied for the lead for a stretch and still battling with a few holes to play. By the way, Woods was looking to close out an historic fourth straight major win that week as well.
That would look like a recipe for getting the No. 1 spot on this list. While it was a noteworthy day, the fight between Woods and Mickelson here wasn’t all that inspiring.
It was David Duval up ahead who was really Woods’ primary challenger on the back nine. Mickelson hung around and was indeed just one shot back with three to play. But a bogey at 16 quickly sank him, as he failed to challenge Woods on the final two holes.
It was certainly a hard-fought win for Woods and all of the elements of a potentially terrific duel with Mickelson were there. But while there was some entertainment on the Woods-Mickelson front that Sunday, it didn’t come close to meeting its potential.
7. 2009 Tour Championship
This one is somewhat high on the list even though the conclusion down the stretch wasn’t really in doubt. But it deserves a nice cozy spot, because it’s pretty much the only time Woods and Mickelson have competed against each other and really both won.
Mickelson controlled this tournament that Sunday, closing in 5-under 65 to go from four shots back to a three-shot win. His round was punctuated by a chip-in birdie at the 16th. Woods made his own spectacular birdie at No. 16 with a long putt but never challenged Mickelson for the title down the stretch.
Woods did put himself in second place, though, which proved to be more than enough to earn him the FedEx Cup title.
Maybe not the most spectacular showdown, but there was plenty of entertainment as they secured a split in titles.
6. 2009 Masters
This is the only one on the list where neither player won the tournament and maybe another entry that seems kind of high, but let us explain.
A final-round Tiger-Phil duel in a major where both are playing high-level golf has been exceedingly rare. Honestly, this is probably the best instance.
That didn’t appear a likely scenario this Sunday. While they were paired together, both began the final round seven shots off the lead. And then .. magic.
It was mostly all Mickelson on the front nine, as Lefty dazzled with six birdies in his first eight holes – including an unbelievable hooking approach at No. 7 hit to tap-in range from behind a tree. Mickelson was one off the lead as he reached the 12th tee.
But a tee shot in the water there and a short miss for eagle at 15 ultimately would doom him.
Meanwhile, Woods was struggling massively with his swing and yet kept figuring out ways to make birdies (and an eagle, too). It kept building and by the time he made a short birdie putt at No. 16, he was 6 under on the round and one off the lead.
Mickelson was still just one back too, and either might’ve pulled off an ultimate Masters final-round comeback with a birdie-birdie finish. Neither could find it, though.
But for much of the day, there was the specter of an epic Mickelson comeback or an unbelievable Woods-Mickelson battle for the title from well back. They couldn’t follow through in the end, but it was a tease well worth the eventual disappointment.
5. 2001 Bay Hill Invitational
You may recall the end, and it was special, but Woods narrowly came out on top after an intense Mickelson charge.
Woods took a three-shot lead to the back nine, but Lefty would quickly make back-to-back birdies at Nos. 11 and 12. A Woods bogey at the 11th meant the entire lead had vanished.
Mickelson would take the outright lead with a birdie at No. 15 only for Woods to bury a 50-footer for birdie at the 14th to tie it back up. Mickelson would then birdie 16, and Woods would follow with his own. A spectacular par at the last gave Mickelson a 6-under 66 and a 14-under total.
Woods needed a birdie at the 72nd hole to win, a par to force a playoff. After an errant drive left, Woods hit a tremendous approach over water to 15 feet and buried the left-to-right slider for birdie, the win and to break a so-called “slump” (he hadn’t won in four months, which tells you the standards for Tiger at the time that this was considered a worrisome slump).
It was a brilliant battle, punctuated by some classic Tiger heroics.
4. 2000 Buick Invitational
This was a wild one.
Mickelson held a six-shot lead over Woods (and a two-shot cushion overall) with the final 18 to play. With anyone else a half-dozen back, Mickelson would’ve been expected not to sweat him.
But this was 2000 Tiger Woods trying to hunt him down. The guy entered this tournament coming off six straight PGA Tour wins, the latest of which had been from a seven-shot deficit with seven holes to play.
Mickelson’s worst fears would be realized, at least for part of the day.
Despite taking a seven-shot lead early that Sunday, Mickelson would put himself in the crosshairs with a pair of double bogeys. Woods pounced, and the pair was tied as Mickelson played 13.
But Mickelson hunkered down, birdieing Nos. 13 and 14 to take back command. He would birdie four of his final six holes on the way to a 2-under 70 and a four-shot win.
This was a rare win for Mickelson in a duel against Woods in the early years of the rivalry.
3. 2002 U.S. Open
This one gets a lot of points for atmosphere, stage and what it represented.
It was a solid duel in itself, of course. Woods began the final round with a four-shot lead and was five clear of Mickelson. But Woods started bogey-bogey. He would steady from there, but Mickelson birdied Nos. 8, 11 and 13 to move within two. That brief glimpse was dashed when Woods picked apart the par-5 13th for an easy birdie to take a three-shot lead again. Nobody would challenge him the rest of the round on his way to a three-shot win.
Yes, a bit anticlimactic most of the day and at the end. But Mickelson did offer hope for himself briefly and the New York crowds gave him unbelievable and telling support on this day.
This was a day signaling that Mickelson was this golf generation’s man of the people and the atmosphere was supercharged as the crowd tried to push their man to his first major title. And while Lefty fell short, he did prove he could put at least a scare into Woods.
Nobody else seemingly could at the time, and Mickelson standing up and fighting would pay big dividends in the coming years.
2. 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship
This is, without a doubt, Mickelson’s most impressive triumph in a duel with Woods.
Mickelson began the final round two back and Woods was three behind. With this duo paired together and playing well that Monday, it would ultimately come down to them.
Lefty piled up five birdies in the opening 10 holes and was so dominant early on that this appeared it would be a rout. In fact, Woods was five back of Mickelson with seven to play.
But the pressure would intensify. Mickelson made a sloppy double bogey at the 12th and Woods buried a 40-footer for birdie at the 14th to cut the lead to two.
The climax arrived at the par-3 16th, where Woods stepped up and knocked his tee shot to 10 feet. Mickelson answered in the cauldron by stuffing his approach 6 feet under the hole. Woods rolled in his birdie putt, but Mickelson calmly buried his own to retain an important two-shot margin.
It was a huge moment for Mickelson – who would go on to win by two shots – proving he could outduel Woods as Lefty was in the major-winning phase of his career.
1. 2005 Ford Championship at Doral
There really can be no debate here: This is the Tiger-Phil one-on-one gold standard.
It didn’t happen in a major, but oh man it had everything else.
Mickelson began the final round with a two-shot lead over Woods, and a Sunday pairing with the man in red. That is enough intrigue in itself, but remember as well that at the time Woods had recently undergone a swing overhaul and was battling back to reclaim the top spot in golf. His greatest challenger to that mission appeared it might be Mickelson, who had won twice that year already prior to the March showdown at Doral.
There was all of that background adding hype, and then the play somehow exceeded the expected drama.
Woods charged hard with a series of birdies and had tied Mickelson with seven holes to play. Woods then made an emphatic eagle at the 12th to take a two-shot lead. At that point, he was already 6 under on the round.
Lefty wasn’t intimidated, though, birdieing 13 and 14 to rise back into a tie. Both made sloppy bogeys at 16, but Woods brought back the fireworks when he drained a 28-footer for birdie at No. 17 to take back the outright lead. Mickelson nearly chipped in for birdie at the 72nd hole – his shot lipped out – in a last-ditch and dramatic effort to force a playoff. Woods followed by making a 6-footer for par to shoot 6-under 66 and finally secure a one-shot victory.
The triumph moved Woods back to World No. 1 and helped set him on a path to capture two majors that year and prove again he was golf’s dominant force. But he needed to upend Mickelson in an electric duel to do it. And he did, but just barely.
This Sunday was the highest drama the two have produced on the golf course to date.