AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson was unrecognizable for half of Masters Saturday, an oddity at Augusta National.
For a long stretch, he was boring. Painstakingly boring.
Lefty butchered both par 5s on the National’s front nine – the second from the left junk off the tee and the eighth from a mud-ball that ended up in the ninth fairway. He played away from hole locations and landed most approaches into the most conservative portions of the greens, making birdies scarce. He parred nine consecutive holes.
Then Mickelson realized where he was and knew he needed to make some noise. Pronto.
Mickelson, 41, found himself on the back nine and responded with a 6-under-par 30 that included an eagle and four birdies to shoot 66. He made birdie on the 18th hole for the third consecutive day and stands in second place at 8 under, one behind leader Peter Hanson.
“I just want to be in position,” Mickelson said. “There's nothing more exciting than being in the final group on Sunday at the Masters because you have a chance, and that's what we all want is that opportunity.”
These hallowed grounds have turned into Mickelson’s personal playground over the past eight years, even more so than his longtime nemesis Tiger Woods.
Now, Mickelson is 18 solid holes away from having as many green jackets as Woods.
Think about that for a moment. When we arrived at Augusta National in 2004, the Masters’ tally was Woods 3, Mickelson 0. Lefty got off the major schneid later that week, then followed it with victories in 2006 and 2010. Woods won his last Masters in 2005.
Mickelson was asked earlier in the week what it’d mean to win four green jackets and tie Woods and Arnold Palmer.
“A lot,” he said. After being asked to elaborate he followed, as only Mickelson can, by speaking slowly, saying, “It would mean an awful lot.”
It’s no secret that there are Mickelson lovers and there are Mickelson detractors; it’s black and white when it comes to Lefty. Rarely is there a gray area.
Those who love him think he’s genuine, love that he smiles, makes eye contact and signs autographs until his hand is numb. Others believe the act is more of a shtick, that he’s a different man behind closed doors.
Doesn’t matter. Everyone loves Mickelson at the Masters. There are no haters. There is nothing to dislike.
“I don't know if there's a player on Tour who loves Augusta more than Phil,” said Hunter Mahan, who is tied for sixth place. “He loves everything about it. You can tell: he puts his coat on when he gets here. He gets off the plane and the coat is on and he comes through the gates here.”
The back-nine run was vintage Phil and resembled Saturday in 2010. He made birdie on Nos. 10 and 12, which gave him momentum heading into the closing stretch. An eagle putt of 25 feet on the par-5 13th caused Mickelson to double fist-pump and sent the proper Augusta patrons into a minor frenzy.
Another impressive display came on the par-5 15th when Mickelson hit a lob shot from behind the green to 5 feet and converted the birdie. He finished with birdie on No. 18 to close out the round and set up a head-to-head Sunday showdown with Hanson.
“It was awesome,” Mickelson said of the back-nine 30.
“I’m not surprised by his ability to pull off shots with great creativity,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie. “He’s inspired by this place. He has great mojo here.”
It’s a side note, but knowing Mickelson’s competitive side you can bet he gained motivation from playing alongside Vijay Singh, whom he got into a dustup with in 2005 when Singh confronted him in the locker room and told Masters rules officials that metal cleats in Lefty’s shoes were too long. Singh shot 76 Saturday and struggled with his putter all day.
And then there’s Woods who has played poorly for three consecutive days at the Masters and is at 3 over par. Mickelson loved beating Woods head-to-head Sunday at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February (Mickelson shot 64, Woods 75) and beating the man once thought invincible by 11 shots at Augusta National is an added bonus.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. If Mickelson doesn’t win Sunday, nothing else will matter. It won’t matter how well he played Saturday, it won’t matter that the Augusta faithful love him so much and it won’t matter that he finished ahead of Singh and Woods. He must deliver the goods.
“I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters,” Mickelson said. “It's the greatest thing in professional golf.”