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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘I believe in legacies’: Woods chides Mickelson on the eve of a major

Tiger Woods played a practice round on Monday at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. The P.G.A. Championship begins there today.

By Bill Pennington

Earlier this week, when Tiger Woods spoke publicly for the first time since his stunning comeback at last month’s Masters Tournament, the expected topic was to be his continuing recovery from a near-fatal 2021 car crash. Woods did indeed say his reconstructed right leg felt stronger as he prepared for this week’s PGA Championship, which begins today at Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club.

But perhaps for the first time at any news conference in Woods’ 30-plus years in the public eye, he spent nearly as much time discussing a longtime rival, Phil Mickelson, as he did himself. And Woods was not usually chatting about Mickelson in flattering terms.

Woods was emphatic about distancing himself from Mickelson, who will not defend his PGA Championship title and has not played since he made incendiary remarks in February in support of a Saudi-backed golf league that hopes to rival the established PGA Tour.

While Mickelson in the past has privately reached out to Woods during his struggles, which have included a sensational marital infidelity scandal in 2009 and the aftermath of a tumbling car crash on a Los Angeles-area boulevard last year, Woods said on Tuesday that he has not contacted Mickelson.

“I have not reached out to him; I have not spoken to him,” Woods said. “A lot of it has not to do with, I think, personal issues. It was our viewpoints of how the tour should be run and could be run, and what players are playing for and how we are playing for it. I have a completely different stance on that, so no, I have not.”

Woods added: “We miss him being out here. I mean, he’s a big draw for the game of golf. He’s just taking his time and we all wish him the best when he comes back.”

But after conceding that the social media landscape had escalated and quickly polarized the dispute between the PGA Tour and the breakaway league, Woods said: “And the viewpoints that Phil has made with the tour and what the tour has meant to all of us has been polarizing as well.”

Mickelson applied for a release from the PGA Tour to play in the inaugural event of the upstart golf circuit, LIV Golf, next month outside London. The PGA Tour denied Mickelson’s request and any made by its members, and it has threatened to suspend or otherwise discipline players who play in the alternative tour’s events. In February, Mickelson provoked a hailstorm of criticism after he acknowledged Saudi Arabia had a “horrible record on human rights” — including the murder of a Washington Post journalist — but said he was still talking with, and aiding, the new tour because it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to apply pressure on the PGA Tour. Earlier this year, Mickelson accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed.” He later said his remarks were “reckless.”

On Tuesday, when Woods was asked how his disagreements with Mickelson could be resolved, Woods replied: “I don’t know if he has to resolve it or not. I understand different viewpoints, but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There’s plenty of money out here. The tour is growing. But it’s just like any other sport, you have to go out there and earn it.”

When he wasn’t discussing Mickelson on Tuesday, Woods’ rebuilt right leg did look considerably stronger than it did last month when he labored to ascend seemingly every hill during the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. During a practice round in Tulsa, Woods actually half-jogged up a steep incline.

When asked how much he had physically improved during the last five weeks of additional rehabilitation for the serious injuries incurred in his 2021 crash, Woods smiled.

“The first mountain I climbed was Everest,” he said. “So, yeah, I’m better than the last time I played a tournament.” He added: “I still have tough days, and things aren’t going to be as easy as people might think. Still, I’m doing better — more positive days.”

But tellingly, Woods, who used to be known for almost ceaseless practice, especially with his putter, scoffed when he was asked if he can now practice enough.

“Practicing a lot? No, I don’t do that anymore,” he answered. “Bending over for a long time, hitting a bunch of putts like I used to? No, that doesn’t happen — not with my back the way it is.”

Some things, however, have not changed. Woods never showed up for an event unless he believed he could finish first. That resolve has not wavered.

“I feel like I can — definitely,” Woods responded when asked if he could win. “I just have to go out there and do it. Starts on Thursday and I’ll be ready.”

Jon Rahm, who is the world’s top-ranked men’s golfer and also in this week’s field, said he was not surprised that Woods wants to win every tournament.

“Hey, the world wants him to win,” Rahm said with a grin.

In what will be an eye-catching grouping, Rory McIlroy will play in today’s first round with Woods and Jordan Spieth, who has won every major golf title but the PGA Championship. McIlroy expects to see an upgrade from the Woods who started strong at last month’s Masters but faded in the final two rounds.

“It’s been six weeks or so since Augusta?” McIlroy asked. “Six weeks is a long enough time to recover from that week and then build yourself back up again.”

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