AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson was on his game on Tuesday, and the big left-hander never got within a 64-degree wedge of Augusta National’s first or 10th tees on a blustery day.
Maybe it was the rejuvenative powers of Magnolia Lane, or last week’s walk-off win in Houston or just the kind of swagger that comes with more green in the suit closet than Shaquille O’Neal. Whatever the tonic, the result was a relaxed Lefty with more one-liners than a Vegas headliner.
For the better part of 30 minutes Mickelson hit the punch lines like a boldly played 6-iron from pine straw right of the 13th fairway. Speaking of Phil’s signature slash between the pines, he was quickly asked if he plunked down a few pellets during one of his recent practice rounds to re-enact the fearless moment?
“I didn’t see the point. I’ve already done that,” he smiled sheepishly just moments before he offered, “It was a 6-iron for crying out loud . . . I had a huge margin of error.”
It is a unique week for Lefty, in as much as a 40-year-old playing his 19th Masters can appreciate something new. For the first time since April 16, 1997, Mickelson begins the week ranked ahead of Tiger Woods. He also kicks off the proceedings as the betting favorite for the first time.
Even in 2006, when Mickelson was fresh off another commanding Tour victory the week before he motored down Magnolia Lane, he trailed Woods in the wagering line. Not that the collective vote of confidence, or anything else, was adding pressure to the proceedings for Mickelson.
In short, Mickelson was a man infinitely comfortable in his own skin.
Phil was cool even when one curmudgeonly scribe attempted to kill his vibe, bringing up the dark days before his first major championship when he wore the title “Best Player without a Major” like a cloak of shame.
“That was seven years ago, you need to let that go,” he laughed.
Even Woods, not always generous with praise for his long-time rival, had to applaud Mickelson’s ability to manage his way around the venerable club’s back nine last year. “He didn't hit it very good for his standard on Sunday. But he missed the ball in absolutely every single perfect place for those pins, and that's experience, and that's knowing where to miss. And he did that,” Woods said.
Had the 20 first-time Masters participants been inclined they could have gathered in the back of the press center and enjoyed “Phil’s Five Easy Steps to Winning the Masters.”
Step 1: Play to win, even when your caddie is trying to talk you out of it. “You mean those three times,” Mickelson smiled when asked about his famous shot at the 13th hole last year, a bold option his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay attempted to talk him down from . . . three times.
Augusta National may, indeed, set up more favorably for a left-hander, a pop-culture explanation of Lefty’s recent run at Augusta. But Mickelson’s greatest asset may be the same DNA that drove him to bounce his U.S. Open title off the corporate tents at Winged Foot.
“There’s a point in every tournament where you have to take on some risk,” Mickelson said. “You can’t expect that other players are going to give it to you.”
Write that down.
Step 2: Swing hard. We’re talking see-a-back-specialist hard, which is what Mickelson is doing this week in hopes of avoiding a body cast. You don’t have to hit the ball a mile to win a green jacket, but it helps, particularly when the forecast calls for a warm, windless week.
“This week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest,” he said.
Step 3: Embrace the late tee time. On Thursday Lefty is off at 1:48 p.m. (ET), a slot some might perceive as a slight for a defending champion. Not Mickelson.
“I would love nothing more than to have the last tee time every day,” he said with Sunday on his mind.
Step 4: Have a game plan. Mickelson has been accused in the past of over-thinking things. This is, after all, the same man who played one of the longest U.S. Open courses without a driver in his bag. So word on Tuesday that he planned to possibly go with two drivers this week, his normal gamer and one with a longer shaft and different loft, was greeted with raised eyebrows.
Yet there is a method to Mickelson’s Masters madness. Whether the two-driver experiment pays off doesn’t matter, but the scheme does make Lefty believe he’s prepared.
Step 5: Enjoy the moment. It’s hard to imagine that Mickelson is inching toward the “December” of his career, the term used by Jack Nicklaus when he won his last green jacket at 46, but his appreciation for the place borders on the spiritual.
“When I drive down Magnolia Lane I get reenergized with the game of golf,” he said. “I could easily forget week-in and week-out playing the PGA Tour how lucky I am to play this game.”
On his way down the famed byway on Tuesday, a familiar drive he’s taken dozens of times, he noticed one of the 61 towering magnolias that line the club’s driveway had been toppled by the morning storms and didn’t miss the opportunity to have some fun.
“I was surprised, you know, that it wasn’t replaced the first half hour,” he smiled. “I think chairman (Billy) Payne must have been sleeping.”
The joke doubled as metaphor for Mickelson’s two decades of Masters moments – one long, repeating dream.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard