AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson did not play particularly well the first two rounds of The Masters. He shot a 76 on Thursday and a 73 on Friday to finish at +5, and as a result he’s headed home for the final two days. Here, then, are a few thoughts on Phil at the midpoint of The Masters.
1. I probably don’t need to begin with this disclaimer, but it’s relevant for what follows. I have never won a Masters, and neither, I assume, have you. (If you have, let’s talk. Perhaps over a round of golf at a certain Georgia club.) Matter of fact, I’ve never even played in a Masters, and thus I don’t know what it’s like to miss the cut in one.
2. That said, Mickelson’s demeanor in the wake of almost surely missing the cut on Friday could best be described as “unusual.” He was smiling as he came off the green, smiling as he tossed his glove to a young fan, smiling as he embraced his wife and bro-hugged a few patrons, smiling as he approached the media, for heaven’s sake. Who does that? Sure, it was more a “darn it, missed again!” smile than a “hey, I’m going to be a father!” smile, but still.
3. For comparison’s sake: Dustin Johnson, who also will miss the cut and has about one-10th the statistical pedigree of Mickelson, left without speaking to the media. And whenever Tiger Woods left an 18th green after a particularly bad round, he wore the expression of a man about to plunge his hand into a running garbage disposal. The brevity of his quotes in such moments would have had Hemingway nodding in admiration.
4. But Mickelson walked up to the three dozen media gathered in a semicircle just outside Augusta National’s Grill Room, hair flopping over the front of his trademark visor, and offered up a bubbly, “Hey, guys!” I’ve never won a Masters, but I’ve gotten humiliated on a golf course, and the last thing I wanted to do was greet a bunch of people ready to dissect that humiliation.
5. Phil offered up some routine quotes: “I didn’t play great, I didn’t play bad.” “The golf course is awesome today.” “It was a really fun challenge.” Delivered in person, with the way that Phil looks a questioner in the eye and uses their name if he knows it, they sound meaningful and rich; on paper, not so much.
6. That’s the thing about Phil, though: more than anyone in golf today, more than anyone since Arnold Palmer himself, Phil knows how to play the game outside the ropes. Whether by fortune or design, he has the absolute perfect persona to appeal to the high-income, golf-dad demographic: a layer of aw-shucks slathered over a deep well of confidence. He’s the platonic ideal of that golf dad: prone to ridiculously dumb choices, but fundamentally good to have around.
7. Phil once and for all became the anti-Tiger four years ago to the day, right in this exact same spot. That was the day he won the 2010 Masters, and Amy and the rest of his family were waiting at the 18th to embrace him. A few feet away, Woods, playing in his first tournament since the life-shattering revelations of his infidelity, left the green alone. You could see the storyline from orbit.
8. Since that day, Mickelson has won another major, last year’s British Open. Woods, as you probably know, has not. Simple math says that both are on the downslope of their careers, even if they – and we – don’t want to admit it. This marks the first Masters in 20 years without either Mickelson or Woods playing on Sunday. There’s sadness in that, both because it’s happened and because we’ve got a lot more of that kind of thing ahead.
9. Even so, this Masters isn’t some kind of tipping point for Phil. (Please refer to my caveat about never having played in a Masters.) With that in mind, I’m of the opinion that this Masters – indeed, every tournament for most of the last five or so years – doesn’t quite have Phil’s full attention. No, Mickelson has had the dates of June 12-15, 2014, circled on his mental calendar for years. That’s this year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The U.S. Open is the final slot open on his Career Slam, and Pinehurst remains the site of one of Mickelson’s most brutal defeats … and, considering Mickelson, that’s a high bar to clear.
10. So perhaps that’s why Mickelson was smiling. This will probably be the last press conference where he won’t have to answer any questions about 1999, or 2002, or 2004, or 2006, or 2009, or 2013.
11. Those, by the way, were all years in which he finished second in the U.S. Open.
12. Yeah, it makes me cringe too.
13. Here’s another tough stat: 76-77-73-76-73. Those are Phil’s last five rounds at Augusta. Statisticians and storytellers can agree: that’s not a good trend.
14. Anyway, it is literally impossible to feel sorry for Phil Mickelson at this moment. He’s got by all appearances a loving family, and is doing well in his chosen profession. He’s got three green jackets and the adoration of millions. Perhaps Phil carries some deep existential scars, questioning his role in a world that has made him wealthy beyond imagination for swinging a stick at a little ball. But probably not.
15. Mickelson may still be watching. “It’s an exciting tournament,” he says. “It [will] kind of be my punishment.” Watching the Masters as punishment … again, you can feel bad for Phil, but you cannot feel sorry for him.
16. We want our champions to be laser-focused, monomaniacal in their pursuit of glory. Smiles? Compassion? Jokes? Those are the signs of weakness, man. But as we’ve seen with Woods, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and so many others, that competitive drive one day catches a wheel on the edge of the highway. What results is raging, untrammeled ego, disconnected from any sense of perspective. Hey, we put them up on this pedestal; why are we surprised when they look down on us?
17. So, yes, Phil becomes our avatar out there on the course. He slaps the ball from bunker to bunker to bunker, like he did Friday on No. 12, just like we do. And then he holes out putts the length of decent field goals, the way we’d like to believe we could. Sometime soon, he’ll miss more cuts than he makes. You can understand why none of us are looking forward to that day.
18. The Masters official in charge of media cuts Mickelson’s press conference off after just a few short minutes, even though Phil looked like he could have gone quite a bit longer. He’d already made plans to meet Amy for lunch, and now he and a handler walk off into the clubhouse. Maybe he’ll be back Saturday, maybe he won’t be back for a year. He’ll be back, though, and for the moment, that’s enough.