Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy walk on to a golf course.
That’s no joke, considering one superstar seemed washed up and over the hill until team play with the youngsters put a giddyup up in his step, another has not actually trod a golf track in competition since January but went slo-mo to prove he’s prepping for a return, and the third is stuck in “neutral” after only the second winless season of his 10-year career.
Just “a matter of time” before Phil hoists another trophy.
First, Phil, who came oh so close to winning his first PGA Tour event in more than four years, despite barely finding a fairway in his T3 finish last week at the Safeway Open (his best result since coming in second at the 2016 British Open).
Of course, Lefty being far left or right of the short grass is hardly news, so hitting just 15 of 56 fairways in Napa to kick off the 2017-2018 tour season was pretty much par for the course. Also not unusual for the popular southpaw is his ability to laugh at himself, which he did in comical fashion after his drive on the par-5 16th at Silverado Resort in Sunday’s finale actually went down the middle.
Mickelson, or “Grandpa” Phil, as his youthful U.S. Presidents Cup teammates referred to the 47-year-old five-time major champ, was so rejuvenated by going 3-0-1 during Team USA’s rout of the Internationals a week ago that he knows his 43rd tour win is just around the corner — or maybe half a world away.
“Well, I’m going to win. It’s a matter of time,” Mickelson told reporters after a 4-under 68 in Saturday’s third round at the Safeway. “I don’t know if it’s tomorrow. I don’t know if it’s in China. But it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen soon because I’m starting to play well enough to do it.”
Mickelson plans to “get a few things ironed out” before teeing it up later this month at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he owns two Ws (2007 and 2009).
One guy who has no doubt that Phil will enter the winner’s circle again — not only in regulation play but at a major — is his erstwhile caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
“He’s in good enough shape and he has the desire and he’s already shown that he has the game. I think that he has a great chance to win another [major],” Mackay told SB Nation during last month’s Dell Technologies Championship. “I think that he’ll absolutely win another major … I think he’ll do something like Jack Nicklaus did late in his career. He’ll win a major later on and surprise a lot of people.”
Feherty’s concerned for Tiger’s “quality of life.”
You know who would stun even a whole lot more people if he won another major — or made his way back to competition at all? Tiger Woods, of course.
Not even two weeks after conceding his playing career could be over, Woods posted another video along the lines of his “progressing nicely” recording from last year — and we all know how that went.
His slow-motion full swing was something of a breakthrough considering he told us recently he was able only to hit 60-yard shots, though it’s unclear what iron he used in his most recent transmission.
Count Woods’ good friend, NBC/Golf Channel commentator David Feherty, among those a tad wary about another Tiger comeback.
“I worry about his quality of life. He’s had four back surgeries and I just don’t want to see him hurt himself anymore,” Feherty said from TPC Boston, where he and Mackay sat down with SB Nation during Saturday’s second round. “It’s not like he has anything to prove but he just loves to compete, he adores the game. He obviously does, otherwise he wouldn’t put himself through this.”
Should Woods actually make it all the way back to the tour without further health concerns (a big “if,” considering his injury-plagued history), Feherty believes the winner of 14 major titles will “absolutely” add a 15th to his resume — though he could not imagine Tiger ever playing the way he did at his peak.
“I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of golf that we saw in the early part of this century and the end of the last,” he said, referring to Woods’ glory days. “My children won’t see golf like that and their children might not see golf like that.”
Woods, 41, made his last competitive stroke nine months ago at the end of an opening-round 77 at the Dubai Desert Classic. He quit the event the next day and ended up having a fourth back operation in April.
“Not much happening” with Rory.
Speaking of injuries — Rory McIlroy would no doubt prefer not to follow his boyhood hero down that particular road.
The owner of four major championships finished tied for 63rd at last week’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championships in a discouraging end to his 2017 season — the second campaign in two years in which injuries took their toll. There was that pick-up soccer game that ended with ruptured ligaments in his left ankle, while this year’s fractured rib put him out of action for some time.
Now, the 28-year-old who was hyped as the “next Tiger Woods” after crushing the course and his opponents on his way to the 2011 U.S. Open title, will stow his TaylorMade clubs (which he switched to after Nike announced it was leaving the gear biz) for six weeks and try to figure out how to revive his stalled career.
“My last round of 2017 sort of summed up all of 2017: Not much happening, good or bad,” McIlroy told reporters after closing out the year with an even-par 72 in the European Tour contest. “Couldn’t get out of neutral.”
McIlroy has plunged to No. 6 in the world after a stint at the top of the world golf rankings and looks up at top dog Dustin Johnson as well as a raft of young’uns — Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, and Jon Rahm — who have made the Ulsterman something of an afterthought.
With his most recent major win coming way back in 2014 at the PGA Championship, McIlroy said he needed time to evaluate his game and figure out how to get back on top.
“I feel I’m a much better player than I was in 2011 and 2012, when I was able to win a couple of majors,” McIlroy said. “I feel I can do better than that in the next 10 years and that’s why these next three months are very important for me to put some really good things in place, step away and just reassess where I’m at and where I need to be.”
The old man among the Millenials (Spieth’s 24, Matsuyama 25, and Rahm 22) acknowledged that the competition has gotten steeper even in the relatively short time since he won his first grand slam tournament at Congressional.
“The landscape of the game has changed a bit since I started to win majors. You have young, hungry guys now who are fearless and playing the game how I basically came out and played a few years go,” he said. “It’s about gaining an advantage again here and there. Just reassessing everything and making sure I’m not leaving any stone unturned and do everything I can to get back to [being] the best player in the world.”
With plans to “rehab and getting my body right,” McIlroy will put the sticks away until the end of November, when he will focus on sharpening his wedge play and putting in particular. He added, though that “basically all areas of my game could get a little bit better.”