The Masters: Old rivals show they still have the class at Augusta

Tiger Woods, left, and Phil Mickelson share a laugh  while playing a practice round for the Masters.
Tiger Woods, left, and Phil Mickelson share a laugh while playing a practice round for the Masters.
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It will not banish the memories of their ill-fated Ryder Cup partnership, but Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were finally able to enjoy a victory together on Tuesday.

Fourteen years after losing twice on the opening day at Oakland Hills after being paired by US captain Hal Sutton, the long-time rivals teamed up to beat Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters in a nine-hole practice round ahead of the Masters.

Rickie Fowler

Rickie Fowler

“They enjoyed beating us badly, I will say that,” Couples told reporters afterwards. “I feel bad for Thomas because I couldn’t have helped Jack Nicklaus in his prime today. Thomas had a lot on his shoulders.”

Starting on the back nine, Couples and Pieters won the first two holes but then saw Woods eagle both the 13th and 15th and Mickelson make five straight birdies.

“I think come Sunday, they might be paired together,” Couples added. “They’re playing extremely well. They love the course. And they’re going to do very, very well.”

Pieters, who was fourth on his Masters debut last year, added: “Tiger was brilliant.”

Mickelson, 47, who won for the first time since 2013 last month, is aiming to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest ever winner at Augusta National. And Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April, is seeking a first major title – and 15th in total – since winning the US Open in 2008.

But Sergio Garcia admits the odds are against him joining Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to successfully defend the Masters.

Garcia won his first major title at the 74th attempt last year, beating Ryder Cup team-mate Justin Rose on the first hole of a sudden-death play-off.

And although he comes into the week on the back of a win earlier this season and three consecutive top-10 finishes, the 38-year-old is realistic about his chances of holding on to the green jacket for another year.

Asked why only three players have successfully defended the title, Garcia said: “The simple answer is it’s just difficult to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s back-to-back or just one. People don’t realise how difficult it is to win one tournament and a major - and the Masters is even more difficult.

“It doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it my best shot but it’s not easy to do it. This year it feels like you probably have eight or 10 guys in good form with a really solid chance of winning. At the moment it’s quite exciting.

“This is my first time defending a major and a green jacket, so it’s new to me. But I’ll try to go through the things that I know help me and hopefully get off to a good start and really enjoy the week.

Garcia also revealed he will wear a green ribbon in his cap this week in tribute to his friend and former Augusta member Rob Chapman, who died from a brain aneurysm in July.

“He and Nick Evans were the first two members that we built a relationship with and it was very sad to hear what happened to him,” Garcia added. “I’m so glad that I got to win last year and not this year, because he was able to see it.

“I remember the hug we had just as we finished at the 18th hole and he was right behind me at the prize giving and it was very special. He wanted me to win so badly and fortunately at least he got to see that.”

Rickie Fowler admits he faces a mental battle to turn near-misses into major championship glory.

Fowler finished in the top five in all four majors in 2014 and was fifth in both the US Open and US PGA last year, but could only finish 11th in the Masters after going into the final round just a shot off the lead.

“I’ve been fortunate to be in contention here a couple of times and Saturdays and Sundays are special when you do get that chance to be in there,” the 29-year-old American said.

“We put ourselves in a great position last year going into the back nine.

“I didn’t have the back nine that I wanted, but it’s fun to be in the mix when the wind starts to die down and it starts to get really quiet and then you get the loud roars.

“To be there to see some friends win, whether it’s Bubba (Watson)’s play-off on 10, seeing Sergio (Garcia) get it done in the play-off coming up 18, I would love to have my chance at it.”

“This being my eighth Masters I have plenty of experience, know how to play the golf course, it’s just about piecing it together. I think it’s more of a mental challenge than it is a physical challenge this week.

“For me I just need to do a good job of working well with my caddie and making sure that we’re choosing the right shot and committing to it, staying focused all four rounds every shot. I know that I can hit every shot that I need to on this golf course, I can putt well, and that’s obviously needed here.

“So the big thing is everything that happens prior to actually pulling the trigger. I need to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind and trusting what we’re trying to do and not second-guessing anything.”

Asked about the impact of seeing his friends Watson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas win majors, Fowler added: “It’s fun to see your friends win. It’s fun to see them play well.

“But it also is kind of a kick in the butt to get yourself to keep pushing forward. You want to be in that position and if your buddies decide to be there, it’s a bonus, a nice touch.”