AUGUSTA, Ga. – Spring came early here this year, causing the azaleas at Augusta National to bloom weeks ago and this year's Masters to lose its signature colorful backdrop.
The place is immaculate, yet mostly green. As the sun lowered and shadows lengthened Saturday afternoon, its leaderboard was no better, leaving patrons desperate. Tiger Woods never got going. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia faded. Fred Couples acted his age. The board featured some players with too many vowels and others with too few victories.
Then Phil Mickelson marched onto the 13th green here, "the Azalea" they call it, the back end of Amen Corner.
Behind him, up on the hill above the famed bunkers, was a single bush, inexplicably resplendent in full bloom pink. It was a lone, horticultural throwback to everything this place and this tournament is supposed to be.
Mickelson stepped up to a 40-foot eagle putt, hit it firm and crisp, and as it rolled to the hole, he lifted his putter high in the air with his right hand. When the ball finally sunk down into the cup, pushing him to 6-under par and sending the Masters into its familiar delirium, he pumped his left fist repeatedly as the gallery went wild chanting his name.
"It. Was. Awesome," Mickelson said, and yes, yes it was.
Phil destroyed the back nine here Saturday, shooting a 30 despite missing a couple of makeable putts. He wound up 8-under, just one behind leader Peter Hanson and in prime position to capture his fourth green jacket on Sunday.
"There's nothing more exciting than being in the final group on Sunday at the Masters," Mickelson said.
He returned the roar to Augusta, brought the drama and shot-making everyone craves to a tournament that was threatening to turn into the Swedish Open.
There's no one who thrives amid the pressure and the pines like Mickelson these days. Just two years ago, en route to winning the tournament, he tore up the same back nine on Saturday, featuring a dramatic eagle-eagle-birdie stretch on Nos. 13-14-15. This year he managed just eagle-par-birdie on those three.
"Like 2010, when I had a hot run on the back nine, it's still Saturday, and you're going to have to go play some really good golf," he said, before adding some caution to the excitement. "And you're going to have to have some good things happen on Sunday."
Mickelson was going nowhere early, making par on the entire front nine and sitting at two-under as the leaders began to separate.
Then he delivered a long birdie putt on 10, causing a surge of noise by his gallery and seemingly a pump of adrenaline for himself. He walked off the 10th green, down a hill, and as fans started their calls for "Phil!", he gave a fist bump to the rope attendant.
The rest was history.
"You know that you have the back nine, and you have some birdie and eagle opportunities," he said.
For years, Augusta – as much as anywhere – haunted Mickelson. He openly jokes about this failure or that flub. He said it took years for him to learn to accept par on the 15th, a hole most tab for birdie. He had seven top-10 finishes between 1993 and 2003, including finishing third in '01, '02 and '03, but never victory.
Then be broke through in 2004, added jackets in 2006 and 2010, and now he talks about how everything has changed. "It was no longer pressure I felt," he said. "It was excitement." He lives for this. The atmosphere. The galleries. The memories. He said once he gets it going, he surges with strength. On the 15th, the 41-year-old had 235 yards to the green, hit a 5-iron and it went long.
"There was just no way I should be able to hit a 5-iron that far," he said. "I get excited. I get pumped up."
"I thought it was remarkable," Player said.
Mickelson shrugged. Why wouldn't he come if he could?
"Anybody who has a chance to come to the Masters, it's worth getting up early to go watch those guys tee off," he said.
That's the heart of the connection here between Mickelson and his always-sizeable galleries. He seems to love the place as much as they do. He seems to walk with the kind of awe-inspired joy that fans figure they would. He never stops smiling and nodding and interacting with them.
And he never stops trying to make magic happen. He hits driver off the pine needles. He putts for the hole rather than lag. On 15, when faced with a tricky shot from just off the green, he took a near-full-swing flop shot rich with peril.
"It wasn't the safest shot," he said after the round with a laugh, since the shot set up another birdie. "This golf course will reward aggressive play."
That's how Mickelson thinks. That's how Mickelson plays. That's how Mickelson wins.
And that was, once again, Mickelson at the Masters on another Saturday afternoon.
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