“Phil is just amazing with the wedges. When I ended up in the same spot [behind the 15th green], I just sort of hit a bump-and-run up there. He goes up and just hits a full swing and goes straight up in the air!
“He has a few shots around the green that I’m not even close to.”
For many years, Mickelson was the man who always seemed to be lurking in fine position on Saturday night, yet never pulled off a Sunday-comeback win here, going to sleep in various years in third, third, second, fifth, second, fourth and fifth place.
Now, he seems so confident, at peace and in love with Augusta that it’s hard to recollect old Pholdin’ Phil. On this course, which Fred Couples calls “Phil’s park,” he’s always chill these days. Even when he triple-bogeyed the 10th hole on Thursday to fall to 4 over par, he didn’t rattle.
“I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters,” he said.
On Thursday, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial first-group tee shots at 7:40 a.m. That day, Mickelson’s tee time was the very last group of the day, a full six hours later. Yet Phil was there to shake the hands of the Big Three of olden days, a gesture that surprised and touched all three, especially since no other famous current stars showed up. Much that once seemed like Phil schmaltz when he was young and bumptious now seems mature, genuine and generous.
All that’s well and good, but it doesn’t help you hit shots on Masters Sunday. There’s a treacherous dynamic in high-pressure pairings. One man’s mistakes or manner can infect the other. Will Hanson and Mickelson influence each other on Easter Sunday? They certainly inspired each other on their 65-66 day. If that synergy arrives again, this is a two-man match; in which one player is certain he can win, while the other says, “I know it’s going to be a tough night. I probably won’t be watching a lot of Golf Channel.”
The back nine on Sunday is inspiring. But the front nine, which the public doesn’t know as well, loves to play games with your mental health. No. 1 is the hardest hole on the course. How lovely. By the eighth tee, you can be 3 over par and back in the pack.
Mickelson knows all of this like the back of his hand. In golf’s current Big Three, he is now, easily, the most mature. Tiger Woods says his game is still a work in progress — or should that be wreck in progress? McIlroy can shoot a record 16-under to win the U.S. Open or, inexplicably, go out in 42 when he seems perfectly positioned for a run.
The Masters has its long love affairs with a handful of great players. And those champions love back — the crowds, the place itself and the demands of this particular course where power, imagination and resiliency are essential. On Thursday, Mickelson was in the weeds, far off the 10th fairway, on his way to a triple bogey and a 4-over- par start. Since then, he’s 12 under par for the last 44 holes.
Pull up a chair. The roar of anticipation at the 18th green is already starting to build.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/