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At Tiger’s event, who dares?

Nothing like a little pingpong diplomacy to help thaw a relationship. It worked in the '70s for the United States and China, and maybe it'll have the same effect on Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who have never been particularly palsy-walsy.

In case you hadn't heard, the Mickelsons sent Tiger and wife Elin a miniature pingpong table after their first child was born a few weeks ago. As Lefty explained yesterday, "We wanted to give Sam Alexis a little head start. Given that Amy and I seem to own Tiger and Elin [in table tennis] ... we wanted to give Sam Alexis a little jump-start on her game."

Obviously, the Woods-Mickelson rivalry extends beyond the golf course. The two, it seems, have had some steel-cage pingpong matches — they and their spouses — while passing the time at Ryder and Presidents cups. Actually, Phil said, he and Amy don't "own" the Woodses nearly as much as he claims, but it's fun to tell people that.

Tiger seemed genuinely touched by the Mickelsons' gift when the subject was raised earlier in the week. "It was awfully nice," he said. "To have a person you go at toe-to-toe all the time [make such a gesture] ... We certainly appreciate that kind of warmth. And for him to come back here and play is very special for us."

That was the other surprise for Tiger in recent days — first the pingpong table and then the announcement that golf's second-biggest draw planned to enter his tournament, the inaugural AT&T at Congressional. If only Rory Sabbatini, the man who thinks Woods is "more beatable than ever," had been able to make it. Talk about your Dream Threesome.

Perhaps this is a turning point in Woods-Mickelson relations, the beginning of The Thaw. They've always come across as polar opposites — Tiger the introvert, Phil the extrovert — and their pairing in the '04 Ryder was nothing short of disastrous; but there's no rule that says archrival golfers can't get along ... be friends, even. Heck, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won two National Fourball Championships together. (There's also a famous picture of them dancing cheek-to-cheek during a night of revelry, a woman's wig perched atop Jack's head.)

As Nicklaus put it not long ago: "Arnold, Gary [Player] and I were doing something almost every week together. If we weren't playing a tournament, we were playing a TV match, we were playing an exhibition, we were doing promotions of different things. We spent a lot of time doing things together."

Woods and Mickelson might never be that chummy, but perhaps they've found a common ground: children. Phil has three, and Tiger wants to have more of his own. Might Amanda and Sophie Mickelson, at some future Presidents Cup, be teaching Sam Alexis how to hit a pingpong ball with topspin?

In the meantime, Lefty has lent his support to Tiger's tournament, and that, too, is "awfully nice." The wrist injury that forced him out of the Memorial and caused him to miss the cut in the U.S. Open isn't totally healed, he said, but he's ready to play again — anxious to play again, especially with the British Open looming.

"I love coming here and playing a U.S. Open-type venue," he said. "... I love what Tiger has done incorporating the military. ... It's great that Tiger's in a position to host an event and be able to have such an effect on so many lives, [not the least because of] his Tiger Woods Learning Center. ... I think this can really be one of the elite events. It looks like it's already starting."

Asked whether he might be host of an event of his own someday, Mickelson didn't sound all that optimistic. "I don't know if I'm in the position to have an impact on so many people like Tiger does," he said. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Woods and everybody else, even a future Hall of Famer like Lefty. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is so large that Tiger can not only put on a tournament, his vast legions can pull it together in a matter of months — and get a former president of the United States to hit the ceremonial first tee shot.

But while Mickelson is, in a sense, paying his respects to Woods this week, he'd be more than happy to upstage him by winning the first AT&T National. And let's face it, these next four days Tiger just might be, as Sabbatini says, "more beatable than ever." The poor guy is sleep-deprived, diapered-out and quite possibly afflicted with Baby on the Brain.

"I haven't seen him yet," said Mickelson, breaking into a knowing smile. "I think he's had a little going on the last two weeks. I know when we had our first child, the first two or three weeks were a blur. I don't remember when my next event was, but it sure was fun to get back out and play after such an emotional experience. It was almost calming. You didn't feel the same nervousness on the first tee."

Here's hoping Woods experiences the same sense of release. I mean, how cool would it be for him and Mickelson to go head-to-head down the stretch Sunday, the lead pingponging back and forth?

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