This article first appeared in the April 17, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated.
First there was the Old Phil—remember him? For a decade he played a thrilling brand of low-percentage golf, blitzing the fields at Phoenix Opens and Bob Hope Classics but always beating himself when the stakes were the highest. The New Phil emerged in 2004 with a throttled-back game built for the majors, and though it brought him two breakthrough victories they were still high-wire acts, as he had to birdie the last hole to prevail at both the 2004 Masters and the 2005 PGA Championship. Last week, at the 70th Masters, came the unveiling of the New New Phil—a potent mix of overpowering golf, increased discipline and hard-earned experience. The latest version of Mickelson doesn't just win majors, he dominates them. He not only beats the competition but also demoralizes his fellow pros.
Mickelson went into the final round of this Masters with a one-stroke lead, and as he played the 7th hole on Sunday he was in a five-way tie for first and 15 players were within three strokes of the lead, including three of his four primary rivals: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. (Ernie Els had been only four back at the start of the day but suffered another Sunday meltdown.) What had the makings of a classic back-nine shootout instead turned into a suspense-free coronation. Mickelson made textbook birdies at the 7th and 8th holes to regain the outright lead and then produced the kind of methodical, indomitable, airtight golf that has been the hallmark of Woods's biggest victories. Mickelson simply refused to make a bogey while patiently allowing everyone else to beat themselves. By the time Mickelson reached the 16th hole he was four strokes ahead and cruising. "This is the best round I've ever seen him play," Rick Smith, Mickelson's longtime swing coach, said from behind the 16th green. "He has incredible control out there." Only a meaningless bogey on the 18th hole prevented Mickelson from becoming the fifth Masters champion to play the final round without a blemish.
Now halfway to the Mickelslam, having won the last two majors and three of the past nine, he is beginning to transcend comparisons with his contemporaries and stir the ghosts of the game's alltime greats. It's a mind-bending change from the lost years during which Mickelson was measured not against other golfers but against Dan Marino and Charles Barkley and other megatalents who never won the big one. Now it's time to reach for the Ben Hogan parallels. Hogan didn't win his first major until he was 34; by the time he was 41 he had eight more. Any chance that the 35-year-old Mickelson will get complacent after his latest triumph? "Tomorrow we'll start preparing for Winged Foot," he said on Sunday night, a nod to the site of the U.S. Open in June.
It was Mickelson's preparation for this Masters that proved decisive. Following the 2005 tournament, Augusta National underwent its latest round of retrofitting, being stretched to 7,445 yards in its continuing evolution from a wide-open shotmaker's delight to a longer, tighter, more penal test that demands as much precision as power. Mickelson had ended his 0-for-42 drought in the majors at the 2004 Masters by employing little more than a controlled fade off the tee, but with Augusta National now 155 yards longer Mickelson felt he needed more pop this year. In a practice round on the Masters course 10 days before the start of the tournament, the player whom his colleagues sardonically call Genius decided to go with two drivers. He used his regular big stick on dogleg lefts, such as the 5th and 13th holes, where he is so comfortable hitting soft fades. When he wanted to really bust one, he used a driver that is heel-weighted with a longer shaft, which promotes a hot draw that gives him an extra 25 yards without sacrificing control. Smith immediately dubbed Mickelson's new weapon "the bomb driver," and to test it in tournament conditions Phil used it at the BellSouth Classic, played the week before the Masters. At the BellSouth all he did was finish 28 under par to win by 13 strokes in the most dominant performance of his career, averaging 309.1 yards per drive and hitting 80.4% of fairways along the way. (He had been averaging 297.2 yards and 57.5% coming in.) For the first time in recent memory Woods was not the clear-cut Masters favorite.
The intrigue surrounding Mickelson's twin drivers stoked the larger story of how the revamped Augusta National would play. The soundtrack to the early part of Masters week was the whining of the players, who were given the outrageous task of having to hit accurate drives and sometimes use a long iron on approach shots, the latter being a lost art in the driver-wedge game that is transforming the PGA Tour into a Home Run Derby in pleated pants. But to the seeming disappointment of many players and most of the press, Hootie Johnson—the Augusta chairman whose fetish for combating increased driving distance has led to all the course changes—was exonerated over the first two rounds. The firm and fast conditions suited a wide variety of players, and on a windless Thursday there were plenty of highlights. The 12 eagles were one shy of the first-round record, and Singh shot a bogeyless 67 to take a one-stroke lead. One of 18 players in the field of 90 to break par on the first day, Mickelson hit eight of 14 fairways and birdied three of the four par-5s en route to a two-under 70.
During the second round a swirling breeze gave Augusta National more teeth, and only three players broke 70, led by Chad Campbell's 67, which propelled him to a three-stroke lead over Singh (three double bogeys en route to a 74), Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate. Mickelson was four back after a 72, during which he hit nine fairways and birdied all the par-5s.