Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy open up about this year’s Masters

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What are three of golf's biggest names expecting at a November Masters?

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Tiger Woods has a title to defend. Rory McIlroy has a Grand Slam to complete. And Phil Mickelson just wants to contend, once more, at his favorite golf tournament. Three of golf’s most thoughtful (and intriguing) characters teed it up last week at the Zozo Championship in southern California, but as they slipped from tournament contention their collective focus shifted to the Masters, now just two weeks away, where each has a score to settle.

What follows is a roundtable of their thoughts on prepping for Augusta National. No, we didn’t technically have these three sitting ’round a table talking azaleas and magnolias, but these are very much their words, spoken within the last week, compiled for your reading pleasure.

How are you preparing for this year’s Masters?

Mickelson has been weighing playing next week’s Houston Open vs. next week’s Champions Tour event at Phoenix Country Club.

Mickelson: I think that they will do a very good, safe job in having 2,000 people at the Houston Open. However, for me personally, I don’t like the risk that having that happen the week before the Masters. I just feel like the week before the Masters, that’s a big tournament we have and I just don’t want to have any risk heading in there. So it has made me question whether or not I’ll play there. So if Phoenix does not have people, I’ll probably go there, to be honest. If they’re both going to have galleries, I’ll probably go to the Houston Open.

Phil has dominated in his Champions Tour starts, but can he still contend at Augusta?

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Woods has been considering adding the Houston Open to his schedule.

Woods: I’ll make the decision soon. I’m not going to wait around on that decision and commit either way, one way or the other. I know — we were talking this morning about our progression and our training sessions and we’ll be in the gym [Monday] afternoon and get back after it that way, but I’ll make a decision quickly on whether or not I’m going to play Houston or not.

McIlroy: No, I’m not playing Houston. Augusta’s my next one and I’ll take a couple of months off after that and come back at Torrey [for the Farmers Insurance Open in January], I think.

Will you go to Augusta in advance of the tournament?

Mickelson: Maybe. I mean, I might go before the tournament. I’m not sure yet; I really haven’t decided on my plans.

Woods didn’t answer this question directly, but ESPN’s Bob Harig reported that it was possible Woods would make a scouting trip this week — and that if he did, it would be his first visit since winning in April 2019.

McIlroy: Yeah, I will, a couple of times. I might go up once and spend a night and play a couple of days or maybe go up a couple separate times.

Any particular shots that you prep for Augusta?

Mickelson: I’m still trying to get my speed up. I’m not going to be in the levels of those guys, but I can get the ball speeds in the 180s, I can get my wedge game sharp. And I’ve been putting well. My putter’s been really good the last couple of months. I putted poorly starting the year and it’s really come around. I’m excited to get to that golf course putting the way I am; I think I can get in contention just based solely on how well I’ve been putting.

Mickelson added that his Champions Tour prep may be helping him for Augusta National.

Mickelson: I’m enjoying playing both tours. They’re so different as far as the course setups and style of play. I need to be much more disciplined out here [on the PGA Tour]. Obviously I’m making way too many mistakes and big numbers and penalty strokes and so forth, and the Champions Tour is a little bit more forgiving, you can recover a little bit easier, pins aren’t as penalizing. So I certainly enjoy that style of play because I can play aggressive and it’s more comparable to the way Augusta is because Augusta allows you to recover a number of times if you hit less-than-perfect shots. Certainly it’s difficult recovery, but it’s there.

Woods: Each and every year, it’s the same thing: Hitting high draws, making sure I can hit a high draw anytime I want. There are a few holes, like 10 and 13, a little bit on 14, depends on the conditions, but it’s so advantageous to hit a high draw. You know, that’s always been my game plan ever since I was an amateur, since I played it for the first time in ’95 that I can get that ball up and turning from right to left. It’s easier to hit other shots from there, but be able to make sure that I can do that and then I can drop down and hit any shot from there.

McIlroy: [Cheekily] High bombs, as Phil would say. No, not particularly. I don’t think — I think nowadays everyone talks about trying to hit a draw around Augusta. But Jack Nicklaus won the thing six times and wasn’t particularly known for moving the ball right to left, so you need to just execute. You need all aspects of your game in good shape, especially your short game.

I think going back to Phil, one of the conversations I remember having with Phil back in the day was he always tried to get his short game so good at Augusta so then he could be ultra-aggressive with the second shots knowing that he had a short game to bail him out if he did miss it on the wrong side. So you try to get your short game really sharp and get everything else sort of following that.

Rory McIlroy’s focus has been on distance, but he’ll be looking to dial in the short game before Augusta National.

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How does your game feel going into golf’s most-hyped event of the year?

Mickelson: Yeah, I have some pretty good direction on where I need to go with my game and I’ll take this week to work on it and try to apply it the week before. I’ll go home, talk to Amy, see what course is sort of best suited to get me ready, which one allows me to hit more drivers maybe. I’d like to hit some mid irons, but also like to chip and putt.

I’m not sure. I know nothing about [Houston Open site] Memorial Park. I have played [Champions Tour host site] Phoenix Country Club quite a bit, but I’ll see what course is best to get ready and I’ll do that. But this week I’ll take to work on a couple of things and, you know, see if I can get my game sharper.

Woods gave a frank assessment of his week at the Zozo Championship, potentially his final start before the Masters.

Woods: I played the par-5s awful. This is one of the golf courses you have to take advantage of all the par 5s, they’re all reachable, and I did not do that well this week. I played them probably around even par if not over par for the week. I did not drive the ball and didn’t hit my irons close enough consistently.

The only thing I can take out of this week that I did positively I feel like each and every day and pretty much every hole is I putted well. I feel like I rolled it great. Unfortunately, they were all — most of them were for pars and a couple for bogeys here and there, but not enough for birdies.

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 11th hole at Sherwood Country Club on Sunday.

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McIlroy: Look, the game’s there, hitting plenty of good shots, giving myself plenty of chances. Obviously [Sherwood] is a pretty easy golf course, as the scores suggest this week, but I felt like I played pretty good the last three days. My game is definitely feeling better than it did when I headed out here.

Just need to limit the mistakes more than anything else. Don’t think it’s anything technical, but yeah, mostly just I’ve sort of compounded errors this week a little bit, and last week as well. I had a really bad run [at Shadow Creek] at the end of the tournament to go from wherever I was in the top 10 to outside the top 20.

I’m trying to be really almost just too perfect and I’m maybe just being a touch aggressive when I get myself out of position. So just taking my medicine a little bit more when I do. That was sort of the story of the week.

McIlroy’s 29 birdies were the most of any player at the Zozo, one ahead of Patrick Reed and four ahead of tournament winner Patrick Cantlay, who made 25 birdies against two bogeys to post 23 under.

McIlroy: It would have been nice to hole that birdie putt at the last, I would have made 30 birdies for the week. So I made 29, which is more than enough to win golf tournaments, I just need to cut out the mistakes.

What do you expect from the conditions in November at Augusta National and how will it be different?

Mickelson: When I play it, usually the fairways are a lot longer because they just overseeded and they’re letting the grass grow in, getting ready for April. I think that the weather and the temperature could make a difference. I think the golf course will probably be a little bit more damp and play a little bit longer and require more carry.

I think that the guys like what Bryson is doing, McIlroy, Dustin, the guys that can get it up there, they will have a big advantage with that kind of distance, but if you get wind and you get a lot of cold, we could also have a Masters like 2007 where Zach Johnson won in some rough weather. I just think the weather’s a little bit more unpredictable at that time.

Xander Schauffele walks to the 13th fairway at Augusta National during the 2019 Masters.

Why you might not see one long-rumored Masters change this November at Augusta National

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It certainly plays a little bit wetter, a little bit longer, but I don’t know if that will be the case this week. I don’t know what the weather’s like. It looks like it’s going to be nice leading into it, and they have a unique ability to do things to that course as far as SubAir and drainage and all the things that they have set up to make the course play how they want regardless of weather.

So, over the course of 30 Masters or however many I’ve played, I’ve had a chance to play it in all different winds and you just kind of adjust, y’know? It’s an interesting golf course because of the way the winds swirl down there and trying to be strategic on the best ways to play the holes. Like it’s a really challenging, fun test and playing it at a different time now provides another unique experience. I don’t know what to expect, but it will be fun.

Woods: The few times that I have played in November, it’s been the same: It’s been cold, the ball doesn’t go very far. I had done it before some of the changes. You know, the last — the big change they made in, what, ’02, I guess it would be the fall of ’01, we went up there and it was driver, 3-wood into 1; 18 was a driver, 3-wood. You know, it’s so different. If you’re able to get the north wind that time of year, it can be awfully difficult and long and very different than what we normally play in April.

McIlroy: Most of my trips have sort of been leading up to Augusta. I think the earliest I’ve ever been there is February and I don’t know if February is comparable to November in terms of temperature-wise. I feel like I’ve played Augusta in most conditions. I’ve played it when it’s been in the 40s and I’ve played it when it’s been in the 80s and 90s and sort of everything in between. I think I’ve played it enough to know what to expect no matter what the temperature and what the conditions are.

How do you expect the tournament to feel different without fans?

Mickelson: Yeah, it’s going to be different, but the fact is we get to compete in the Masters and it just doesn’t matter like where, when, how, who’s watching, it doesn’t matter. We have a chance to compete in the Masters and this is the first time I think in the history of the game where back-to-back majors are played at the same venue. We’re going to play the Masters twice now in a four-, five-month span and that’s a special opportunity if we can get it.

How different will this year’s Masters feel?

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Woods: The one component that is going to be, I think, so odd for all of us who have played there and who have been there is to have no spectators. I was having lunch with a couple guys and we were talking about some of the shots. On No. 7 you aim at one spectator and you’re going to cut it to another, which will leave you either left of this flag or right of that flag. That’s what I’ve done in the past, but there’s going to be no background, no roars.

Sometimes we’ve been on the putting green there before we tee off and you hear roars down there on 12 and 13; they reverberate all the way up to the clubhouse. And there’s going to be nothing. So that’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks; what’s that going to be like?

I’ve played practice rounds before there before tournament week and it’s odd because tournament week, especially there, there’s more people in practice rounds there than tournament play. So it’s going to be odd in that sense, but it’s still the Masters. That’s still the best players in the world, you still have the traditions and it’s just we’re not going to have the roars.

McIlroy: Yeah, I’ve always said my favorite times at Augusta have been away from Masters week and I would say there’s a lot of people that feel the same way. There’s going to be a little bit of that feel come November where it’s quieter, no patrons on site, all that stuff. We’ve played two majors this year where there hasn’t been fans and it’s still a different atmosphere than what you get week-in and week-out.

But no, as I said, those experiences at Augusta when you’re there and there’s nothing on the line apart from just having a good time, they’re the best times.

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Dylan Dethier

Golf.com

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com, where he’s told the story of a strange cave in Mexico, a U.S. Open qualifier in Alaska and plenty in between. Dethier joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. He is a Williamstown, Mass., native and a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English. Dethier is the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.