AUGUSTA, Ga. — He was on the practice range at first light, only his coach and caddie at his side. Then it was off to the putting green, where he kept pressing an Augusta National official for permission to start his practice round before the course was open.
It’s a familiar story for Tiger Woods each year at the Masters.
But on this frigid Tuesday morning, the routine belonged to Phil Mickelson.
They have kept different schedules this week — Mickelson playing early, Woods the late arrival with his most limited practice in his Masters career. They were one group apart Sunday afternoon when both arrived at Augusta and played the front nine.
“Tiger and Phil are out there playing,” one of the club members said before adding with a smile, “Not together, obviously.”
They are not particularly close, except in the world ranking.
The top two players in golf — and the best rivalry of their generation — could be on a collision course at the first major of the year.
Woods returned from an eight-month break after knee surgery to win at Bay Hill two weeks ago when he rallied from a five-shot deficit to beat Sean O’Hair with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole in the dark. It was type of putt Woods always seems to make, one summed up perfectly by Geoff Ogilvy: “Everyone is impressed, but no one is surprised.”
Mickelson already has won twice this year, repeating at Riviera and winning at Doral for his first World Golf Championship.
“I feel like right now I’m playing some of the best golf that I’ve ever played,” Mickelson said.
They have not gone head-to-head at the Masters since 2001, when they played in the final group and Woods won by two shots to become the only pro to capture four consecutive majors.
Mickelson has won the Masters twice, and while the first one is the most memorable — remember that leap? — it was equally gratifying in 2006 to have Woods, the defending champion, help him into the green jacket.
“I do have a picture of him sliding that jacket on me,” Mickelson said with a smile. “That felt good.”
They are considered the top two contenders at the Masters, which starts Thursday, even in a year when there is no shortage of story lines, from Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major to Greg Norman returning to a major he loves, but has received no love back.
Mickelson could go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in an otherwise stellar career if he were to win the Masters and Woods finished out of the top five.
“It would be an incredible feat, given who is currently No. 1,” Mickelson said.
That would be Woods, who intends to stay there.
“The No. 1 ranking takes care of itself, just by winning golf tournaments,” Woods said. “That’s the only way you can really get it. You just have to continue to win.”