Tiger & Phil: Golf’s most fascinating rivalry – review of Bob Harig’s new book

The ESPN writer traces the careers of the two great American golfers of the last three decades.

At first glance, the notion that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have spent the last 30 years entangled in a great rivalry feels a little askew.

Surely the finest sporting ding-dongs require a regular exchange of the triumph on offer to stoke the fire? Think Coe and Ovett on the track, McEnroe and Borg on the tennis court.

In contrast, it's tempting to view this golfing set-to as more like Newcastle United and Manchester United in the 1995/65 Premier League. One popular, brilliant, prone to a meltdown, unfulfilled; the other relentlessly, remorselessly, ruthlessly successful.

But as new book 'Tiger & Phil' proves, the feud runs deep, their impact on one another has been profound and, in beginning his book at the 2004 Ryder Cup, author Bob Harig uses Hal Sutton's pairing of them to highlight the very different character traits which fuelled that rivalry: Woods never anything less than completely driven; Mickelson often flippant, frequently wilful, sometimes hare-brained.

Moreover, it quickly establishes the vital dynamic that drove the relationship, at least initially: that Woods was dismissive of his fellow Californian. "(He) thought 'Lefty' came across as soft as a golfer," Harig writes, "his career record disappointing."

In fact, that might be somewhat underplaying the condescension in those early years. For example, he reports that Fred Funk was astounded when Woods yelled "Yes!" shortly after finishing second in the 2002 PGA Championship: "'That's Rich Beem one, Phil Mickelson zero!' Tiger barked, relishing that Mickelson was still without a major title." Of course, the very fact he gave enough of a damn to utter such words is telling.

Mickelson was also capable of snarkiness, but - tellingly - his blows were travelling downward too. He was furious when journeyman Michael Clark II asked referees to check his (legal) grooves. Harig reveals he left Clark a note in his locker that read: "Dear Michael - I appreciate you concern. Good luck at Q-School this year. Phil Mickelson" It was mid-summer. The barb was sharp. (It was also accurate - Clark went back to Q School and didn't emerge from it.)

For so much of this tale the two rivals' triumphs were rather like their fist pumps: Woods delivering fierce upper cuts that defied fate, Mickelson releasing more of a fist-squeeze that seemed to thank destiny rather than overwhelm it.

Harig traces the many examples of Mickelson being upstaged, even as early as a week in 1996 when, despite claiming a fourth win for the year, Woods trumped him with a third consecutive US Amateur title.

And you think Woods never really cared, that he didn't see Mickelson as a true rival? Among many fine anecdotes, Harig relates that, even in late 1996, Woods shocked those around him (and possibly himself) when he awoke on a plane with the words "Fuck Phil!"

Perhaps that early dominance has fooled us into forgetting that there was a period when the two really did slug it out at the top of the game. Harig corrects our mistake: "Of the 12 major championship played from 2004 through 2006, Woods and Mickelson combined to win seven of them. They traded green jackets in Augusta National's Butler Cabin during that time."

He also reminds us that Mickelson's failure to win the US Open at Winged Foot was not merely another chapter in his endless quest to win his national championship ("Phil had the stage to himself and stumbled into the orchestra pit"), but it also prevented him winning a third major in a row: "A feat accomplished just twice in the modern era".

That he was so close to greatness and contrived to cock it up is, of course, so very Mickelson. So, too, is his acknowledgement that, for all the frustrations of competing with a phenomenon, he also benefited from the explosion in interest and cash Tigermania created.

Like Woods' career, the book peaks when discussing the US Open victory at Torrey Pines in 2008. Harig's research and many interviews illustrate the depth of Woods' desire to win that week, the full extent of his injuries, and the astonishment of those closest to him that week (both insiders and closest competitors).

A Twitter user recently cast doubt on the notion that Woods triumphed that week "on a broken leg". Harig politely countered and was given short shrift by the user who really ought to just read Chapter 13 of this book. It entirely refutes such a simplification.

Of course, Harig would not be human if he has not been grinding his teeth at what has transpired since he submitted the final manuscript. Mickelson's Saudi storm and Woods' unexpected return to action in the Masters have added to the legend of both players, and also impact on the legacy of their rivalry.

But Harig isn't daft. He didn't know what would happen, but he knew the potential, and his closing sentence reads: "If there is more to be written … well, you can bet that will be fascinating, too."

* Tiger & Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry by Bob Harig is published by St Martin's Press

READ MORE: Where will the next European triumph in the Major Championships come from?

Latest news