Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson a class apart

A clash of egos can sometimes be a beautiful thing, in politics, perhaps. But in a stylish endeavour such as golf, it produces ugly theatre.

Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson a class apart

Better, then, that we saw Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson on Thursday in a setting that serves everyone’s interests. Playing as individuals, within the confines of Augusta National Golf Club where their history is rich and their games rhythmic.

At age 65 and playing his 131st competitive round in the Masters, Watson shot a 1-under 71, in sultry conditions. At 44 and in his 23rd Masters, Mickelson opened with 70.

Good news for those who love their Masters heroes in contention, because together, they own five green jackets.

Thing is, together they’re linked to a less favourable golf experience than the Masters — last year’s contentious Ryder Cup defeat for the Americans at Gleneagles. Watson as captain was pretty much a disaster; the only thing Mickelson as the most veteran player led was a mutiny.

You want to play word-association, mention the 2014 Ryder Cup to American golf fans and one thing jumps out at you: Embarrassing.

Sad how such a brilliant golf match morphed into the levels of ugliness that it did for the red, white, and blue in Scotland, and spare yourself the nausea of digesting all this propaganda of an American task force to turn the Ryder Cup experience around. For a reminder of just how bad it’s been, the Americans have lost eight of the last 10 matches, including three in a row.

Watson and Mickelson deserve equal blame for the way Gleneagles unfolded. Iron-minded, Watson seemed to think he could embarrass his players into positive performances. Single-minded, Mickelson appeared to believe his iconic resume owed him as many games as he liked.

They were egos on a collision course and while Watson, as the captain and more veteran name probably deserved to be backed, it unfolded the way all team sports seem to end these days — rich players win, coaches (or captains) get fired.

Mickelson’s idea of a player-led “task force” is nothing more than this: The players want to hand-pick their captain and shape a qualifying process in such a way that it benefits the veterans. It’s called letting the inmates run the asylum in some corners, but whatever, the deeper sadness is that two iconic names probably are done forever in regards to conversation, friendship, camaraderie.

“No. I saw him before that,” Watson said yesterday, when asked if he ran into Mickelson for the first time Tuesday night at the annual Champions Dinner.

So, have they hugged and made up?

“No, we just said hello and that was it.”

Likely, knowing the sort of massive egos involved — and at this point, let’s understand that their exquisite talents are mostly owed to having massive egos — that text messages, voice mails, and shared golf holidays are not in the forecast for Watson and Mickelson. Disappointing, of course, and you want to tell them both to grow up, that they have hurt the game by their stubbornness. But take solace in the fact that if you cast aside the Ryder Cup childishness, there is still a sense of beauty to behold when they play Augusta National.

“I’ve played the golf course enough times to know where I’m supposed to hit it and where I’m not supposed to hit it,” said Watson, whose first of two Masters wins came in 1977, came nearly 12 years before Rory McIlroy was born.

Well aware of the fact that he hasn’t made it into a Masters weekend 11 of the last 12 tries, Watson bristled with the suggestion that he might think like a 65-year-old and just enjoy a stress-free second round. “Yeah, I want to make the cut. I haven’t done that for a few years,” he said.

Benefitting from an early-morning tee time when pulsating heat and breathless conditions provided optimum scoring chances, Watson wasn’t getting too carried away with his 71. After all, red numbers were prominent, thanks to greens that have been softened by humidity and several rain storms this week.

That Mickelson authored one of them — outplaying McIlroy, his playing competitor, along the way — was hardly a surprise, given his affinity for the place. Three wins, 10 finishes in the top five? Oh, yeah, like Watson he’s got a feel for this shrine of a golf course.

Just a shame they didn’t have a feel for the team game last September.

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