AUGUSTA, Ga. Phil Mickelson loves Augusta National, and Augusta loves Phil right back. The affair is ready to resume. But is Phil ready to win?
"I do expect to play well and to compete here and come out on top more so than any golf course, because of the opportunity to recover and utilize my short game to salvage pars when I do hit a few wayward shots, which I've been known to do," Mickelson said at his press conference here Tuesday. "It's just a definition of what a great golf course should be."
His key will be to limit those loose shots, because at age 46, Mickelson enters this 81st Masters as a player in two parts. His short game, the bedrock upon which his career has been built, is locked and jacket-ready. But with a driver in his hand, Mickelson of late has appeared lost.
His frustration flashed near the end of his Tuesday practice round. On the 17th hole, he was playing alongside 22-year-old Spanish sensation Jon Rahm, who hit first and bombed one straight up the chute. Mickelson followed by yanking his ball into the pines right of the fairway. As they strolled off the tee box, Mickelson, in mock annoyance, shoved his driver in front of Rahm, a gesture that appeared to say, "I don't want it. You take it!" The crowd cracked up, but Mickelson's struggle was palpable.
The stats bear it out. Mickelson ranks 2nd on Tour in strokes-gained around the green and 17th in putting. But his driving metrics are distressing. He sits 166th in total driving and 190th (out of 213) in tee-box accuracy. Wayward shots can be managed, but no green jacket is won from the pines. One advantage Mickelson hopes to lean on in this, his 25th Masters, is his experience.
"I think it's become more instinctive and more intuitive for me to just know where the pins are that I'm going to play a certain way. It doesn't require a thought process," Mickelson said. "I know when I'm going to try to attack and make birdies based on where the pin is, based on the wind. It's just instinctive now."
It's been seven years since Mickelson won his third and last green jacket. In the subsequent events, he's made two serious runs: In 2012 he was in contention on Sunday when his tee shot on the par-3 4th hole clanged off a grandstand railing and into the trees, leading to an unlucky triple bogey and T3 finish. In 2015 he tied for second, four shots behind Jordan Spieth.
That was then. Today Mickelson remains title-less since his dramatic triumph at the 2013 British Open, but despite his errant driving, Mickelson enters this week with two top-10s in his last three starts (T7 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, and T5 at the WGC-Match Play, where he was knocked out in the quarterfinals). After two offseason hernia surgeries, Mickelson is pleased with his progress as he looks to end his winless drought.
"I haven't played at the level I expected to for a few years. It wasn't until last year, kind of middle of last year around the British Open and so forth that I really started to get my game back to where I wanted," Mickelson said. "Unfortunately I had a couple surgeries in the offseason and I feel as though my season is just really starting to take off in the sense that I'm able to do the stuff in the gym I want to do. I'm able to recover a lot quicker and practice the way I want to. "
This week Mickelson's chase features the added allure of history. Jack Nicklaus went 23 years between his first and last green jackets; Gary Player went 17. If Mickelson were to pull it off this week, his 13-year gap would slot him into third on the list. And of course, at 46 years and 10 months, he would supplant Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion. Mickelson is banking on a spotty weather forecast, which calls for high winds on Thursday and Friday, to give him an added edge.
"What I like most about this week, is that Thursday, Friday, the weather is going to come in and that's going to magnify the misses for a lot of players, which means that you need to miss it in the correct spots," he said. "Even though you might miss it big, if you're in the right spot, you can take advantage of your short game and salvage a lot of pars, and I hope to rely on that knowledge and skill to keep myself in it heading into the weekend, where players less experienced will possibly miss it in the wrong spots and shoot themselves out."
Mickelson will try to shoot himself into it Thursday morning, when he tees off at 10:45 a.m. alongside Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain and Korea's Si Woo Kim.