HUMBLE, Texas – Phil Mickelson is going to try to steal a page from Jack Nicklaus. He doesn’t want to, really, but circumstances have forced his hand.
He’s not happy about it, not happy about the entire situation. For the last two weeks, Mickelson has told anyone armed with a microphone or tape recorder or notepad willing to listen. It’s just not quite clear at whom he’s directing his anger.
For the first time since 2007 and just the second time in 15 years, Mickelson won’t play the tournament directly preceding the Masters. Like the view of many people in fractured relationships, he’s adopted the attitude of, “It’s not me, it’s you.”
That’s because in the past, that pre-Masters tournament was always the old BellSouth Classic at TPC Sugarloaf, just a few hours down the road from Augusta National, which also featured tree-lined fairways and bentgrass greens. Mickelson liked that setup so much that he once won by 13 strokes, then doubled-down to win a green jacket the next week.
In recent years, it’s been the Shell Houston Open, held on a massive, right-to-left swinging ballpark at Redstone Golf Club, with similar chipping areas to Augusta and green speeds that are at least in the same zip code. It may not be the real McCoy, but it’s close enough that plenty of elite players use this as a final tune-up before the year’s first major.
This year, though, because of the way the calendar fell, with 14 weeks instead of the usual 13 prior to the Masters, there’s an extra tournament in there. So rather than have a preparatory event beforehand, Mickelson chose to eschew the Valero Texas Open, where the TPC San Antonio host venue shouldn’t have much in common with conditions at Augusta.
All of which leads circuitously back to Nicklaus.
On Saturday, after firing a third-round 5-under 67 to climb the leaderboard in Houston, Mickelson was speaking about how his game is peaking at the right time when he was asked whether – with an extra week in between the tournaments this year – playing so well was coming too soon.
“Nicklaus used to try to peak over the week before and over the weekend and then take a couple days off Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of the tournaments and try to build back into the tournament at Augusta,” Mickelson explained. “I'll have to take a page out of his book because I'm not used to taking a week off before a major. It's not my preference. But I'll try to do what I did where I'll try to peak a little bit early and try to back off and build into the tournament again.”
It’s a strategy he first spoke about with the six-time Masters champion early in his career.
“Years ago, when I first turned pro,” he said. “When I first turned pro, 20 years ago, I asked him about some of the stuff, and I still remember. I wrote some of it down.”
If Mickelson had his choice, he may wish for the Masters to start right this very minute.
One day after maintaining his game was close to where he wants it to be, he opened with a birdie, closed with another and sandwiched five more in between, while posting one of the better scores of the day. He hit more fairways than he did in either of the first two rounds and needed fewer putts. Considering his driver (or 3-wood) and putter will be the most important clubs in the bag at Augusta, this should come as welcome news in Camp Mickelson.
“Each day, the game has gotten a little bit better, and today is where it really started to feel good, where I was able to react,” he explained. “When I'm playing my best, golf becomes kind of a reactionary sport where I'm looking at the target, I see the shot and just swing.
“The first couple of days – the first day especially – I was more conscious about golf swing, about mechanics and whatnot, trying to get things right. Today, I was able to get out of that mode and just start reacting, starting to see the shot, and the game feels a lot better, which is why I'm excited about [Sunday].”
He’s also excited about getting to Augusta National. Mickelson will head there late next week, just “relaxing and getting ready.” It’s a different preparation than he’s accustomed to before the Masters – and he’s still not happy about that.
If he can bottle some of Nicklaus’ advice, though, and hit his peak during that week and not prior to it, Mickelson may just wind up finding his fair share of happiness Sunday evening in Augusta.