AUGUSTA, Ga. – Perhaps the most telling sign of how comfortable Phil Mickelson feels playing at Augusta National doesn't come simply from his familiar beaming smile, fist bumps with fans or clear expression of joy to be back – each of which was on display as he marched through the galleries to Wednesday's loose par-3 contest here.
The secret might be in his bag or, more precisely, what isn't.
Tournament golf allows for players to carry a maximum of 14 clubs with them to use. Some are in there routinely: drivers, putters and standard-issue stuff. Others – precisely shaved wedges or maybe a low iron – can be switched in based on the layout of a course or weather conditions. It's a small, but occasionally significant sliver of the game.
For Mickelson, Augusta National lays out so perfectly for his game that his pre-Masters club decision is an unusual one. It isn't about paring down his choices to 14 clubs, but even bothering to get up to the allowable maximum.
It's a bizarre quirk that after remodeling, renovation and some lengthening, Mickelson says that he needs just 12 clubs to win the Masters. He says he never – literally never – has to make a long chip (low 100 yards) to the green. For Mickelson, that shot requires either a sand wedge or a gap wedge.
"I don't ever need them," he said. "… The past six or seven years I've played this tournament, I have not had a shot between 90 and 130 yards. So think about that. I have not ever had a shot between 90 and 130 yards, so I have a 40-yard gap in there. I don't ever need [those two clubs] and it allows me to put in two special clubs."
Here's the issue though. What two special clubs?
Mickelson plays Augusta National regularly in preparation for the Masters, including the traditional week of rounds. Through dozens of rounds, he's brought out all sorts of clubs to see if they might help on an odd shot. "I'm always working on something," he said.
What he's found is nothing matters. He needs only 12 clubs.
"I don't really need a special club this week," he said. Out of obligation, he said he'll throw a 64-degree wedge in there even though it almost assuredly won't get used. Then he'll maybe bring the unnecessary sand wedge "just out of default" because, why the heck not? His caddy, Jim "Bones" Mackay, is the one carrying the bag after all.
Mickelson shrugs. This is unusual, he notes. "There's some [courses] I need 16 [clubs]," he joked. "But that's not really an option. It's just kind of one those unique things."
This is Mickelson at the Masters, full of confidence and comfort. He's long been golf's most approachable superstar, the kind of everyman who wears a green jacket through the drive thru of an Augusta Krispy Kreme.
He's like that everywhere but there's something about this place that makes him even happier, that truly channels his inner kid.
Maybe it's the start of the major season. Maybe it's the familiarity of past triumphs. Maybe it's that he knows this is a place, even at 43, he can win. It's not just the part of needing just 12 clubs, the course is just ideal for his aggressive game.
"It's a magical place to begin with," Mickelson said. "For me personally the feeling that comes over me as I drive down Magnolia Lane is I don't have to play perfect to play well here, because I can recover from mistakes here. You always have a shot. You always have a swing if you hit a bad shot. You have a chance to salvage your par. You have a chance to let your short game save it for you.
"And if I do hit a number of good shots, I'm able to make birdies. This course has always been a course that I felt comfortable on and I've played some of my best golf here."
In 2004, he won his first major here, ending a long pursuit and getting the "best golfer never to win a major" label off his back. Since then he's won twice more at Augusta (2006, 2010).
He joked that his fondest memory of winning in 2004 was his 18th green jump for joy, which he says was misrepresented in pictures that show him with a vertical leap that would struggle to clear a golf ball.
"I jumped so high, I almost hit lightning that day," Mickelson deadpanned. "Unfortunately the photographers, they just didn't time it right so it's a very …"
He began to laugh at his own joke.
"Yeah, I felt like that was an unfair assessment of that leap because I probably could have dunked a basketball if need be."
Fully relaxed Phil comes just two weeks after a pulled muscle caused him to withdraw from a tournament. He said he arrives in great shape though, weeks of hard work paying off.
"I enter this week feeling good, healthy and I'm able to swing as hard as I want and hit the shots that I need to try and hit," he said.
He cites the mechanics of his swing – taught to him as a child – for his ability to avoid injury through the years and maintain him as a contender even as he approaches his mid-40s.
"Because my swing is based on length and leverage, I haven't had the injuries," he said. "I feel like I'm able to compete at a much later age than a lot of players that have such a short, violent, high-torque golf swing."
He didn't need to mention the name Tiger Woods.
Mickelson isn't shy about wanting one thing that Tiger (and Arnold Palmer) have, a fourth green jacket. Mickelson knows there is only so high he can climb on the list of total majors (he has five) but here in Augusta, so beautifully built for him, who knows?
"I do know that Arnold and Tiger have four jackets and I have three," Mickelson said. "I know Jack has six, but nothing I can do about that right now. I'm just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are."
So that's the goal, amid the smile. Win. He laughs while he is here, but he isn't here for the laughs. This is his place, after all, he doesn't even need all his clubs.