Lefty owns Augusta National now, not Tiger

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson talks of driving down Magnolia Lane here at Augusta National and feeling reenergized. It both humbles and builds confidence. It both reminds of the past and focuses on the future. “It just reinvigorates my passion for the game,” he said.

It’s probably always been true but easier to say now, when Mickelson is suddenly the reigning king of the place. He’s not just as the defending champion, either. For once, he’s the favorite over longtime nemesis Tiger Woods with both oddsmakers and, as much as it can be measured, the general mood of the place.

This wasn’t always the case. Augusta was Tiger’s town and Phil’s recurring burial ground. Back when Mickelson was still seeking his first major championship, he finished a gut-punching third for three consecutive years, from 2001-’03. The first two times Woods coolly won the event.

Since his remarkable victory in 1997, Tiger Woods had been the big favorite to win the Masters. That clearly isn't the case this year.
(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Mickelson finally broke through in 2004, won it again in ’06 and then again last year. Tiger took it home in ’05 and hasn’t picked up a new green jacket since. His game is so unpredictable right now he’s not the pre-tournament popular choice anymore.

“Doesn’t matter,” Tiger said. “You still have to play the golf tournament, right?”

That will begin Thursday – Woods teeing off at 10:41 a.m. local time and Mickelson at 1:48 p.m. Until then, you can hardly blame Mickelson for basking in the glow of it all. Both players have always tried to downplay the Tiger-vs.-Phil talk, but that cuts against human nature. Now the tables have turned, for the moment at least, and Mickelson must be enjoying it.

The fans here continued to flock to him during a practice round and Par 3 tournament Wednesday. The Las Vegas Hilton has him as the favorite to win, ending Woods 12-year streak. Just outside the gates, a local Krispy Kreme is featuring a “Phil Mickelson Display” – a picture of him buying three dozen donuts at the drive-thru window while wearing his green jacket after last year’s victory.

Augusta is in a Mickelson mood right now. Tiger is the guy who could really, really use a victory.

This stuff matters to Mickelson. He’s an emotional guy, of course. He thrives on momentum, fan reaction and memories – from the site of those magnolias to the spot behind the 18th green where a year ago he sobbed and celebrated with his cancer-stricken wife Amy.

“That was a really special event for me, a special week,” he said. “It was a really big emotional boost for us. And things have been going so much better. We are in such a better place now.”

This is the roll he is on. Health, happiness and a victory just last weekend in Houston, a sentimental event itself since it was that city where Amy’s cancer treatments took place.

“It was a fun win,” Mickelson said. “A big confidence booster … to have that type of performance heading into here feels very good. Reminds me a lot of 2006 when I was able to put it together the week before and carry the momentum through.”

Tiger, meanwhile, hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since August ’09. Between then and now he had a few, shall we say, personal issues. A year ago he was scolded by the club president, mocked via airplane and joked about in the gallery.

So it’s now Tiger with the questions and Phil with the answers and whoever thought that would happen? It was Phil who used to have to explain how he couldn’t win and Tiger who used to shrug his shoulders at how he couldn’t lose.

A course that everyone always believed was set up for Woods now has players claiming it favors a lefty such as Mickelson.

“I wish I could play [left-handed],” Martin Kaymer said.

“I would love Martin to play this tournament left-handed,” Phil joked.

Mickelson turns 41 in June. Time isn’t on his side. And while Woods, 35, hasn’t won in five years here, he’s been, as he calls it, “part of the action” on Sunday afternoon. He’s finished in the top six each time, including fourth last year despite rust and remarkable pressure.

“Not putting well certainly has cost me a few Masters,” Woods said. “I have been streaky here for some reason, and you can’t be streaky here.”

That’s what Mickelson used to say. Now he cites his daring play as a reason for his success, not failure. Now he revels in the triumphant memories. Now he knows he’s won three of the last seven Masters and is doing it with magical shots that leave even his peers impressed.

“All of the shots that he made look easy [last year],” Tiger said. “They weren’t that easy.”

That’s what they used to say about Tiger.

It’s a fickle game, sure to swing back and forth and back again. So maybe they will again.

The Masters begins Thursday, though, and now more than ever, its Phil Mickelson’s tournament. Its one-time king, Tiger Woods, is just trying to figure out how to reclaim his old Georgia turf.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 6, 2011