Mickelson may not admit it, but he's the favorite this week at Augusta

Phil Mickelson is seeking his fourth green jacket this week.
John Biever/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson said he will use two drivers in his bid for a fourth green jacket, a tactic he used successfully while winning in 2006, and adjusted his practice schedule for the 2011 Masters on Tuesday.

He scratched his practice round in light of chilly temperatures and blustery winds, the remnants of a storm that ripped through Augusta on Monday night.

"I didn't see how playing today was going to benefit me given conditions were supposed to be so drastically different this week," said Mickelson, who scouted Augusta National twice last month and will play his only practice round of the week Wednesday.

Instead of plotting strategy on the course, Mickelson was doing the final bit of planning for the Tuesday-night Champions Dinner, where he will serve paella and other Spanish cuisine in honor of two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros, who is fighting brain cancer and is still too unwell to make the trip to Augusta.

For the first time, Mickelson, not Tiger Woods, is the clear favorite. That may be enough to concern Phil's fans, who know all too well their man's preternatural capacity for surprise.

Predictably, Mickelson tried to give himself some breathing room.

"I've always felt that this tournament has a lot of players that are playing well heading in, that guys gear their game for this event," he said. "And that it can be one of the toughest tournaments to win because so many guys are playing well. As a player I would never discount any single player that's in this field."

Mickelson would tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods with his fourth green jacket this week, two behind Jack Nicklaus's record six. The lefty has plenty of momentum, coming off a weekend in which he shot 63-65 to win the Shell Houston Open by three strokes.

"Saturday he played as good as I've seen him play ever, I think," Lee Westwood said of Mickelson's course-record-tying 63 in the third round in Houston, where the two played together for the first 54 holes. "He played very well."

That's high praise, since Westwood also was with Mickelson for the final round of last year's Masters, when Phil won with a 67 that included the shot of the year: a 6-iron off a bed of pine straw and through a narrow gap in the trees on the 13th hole. After his emotional third Masters victory, coming as his wife, Amy, battled breast cancer, Mickelson went dormant for the rest of 2010, but he seems to have woken up just in time. Said one Augusta Chronicle headline Tuesday: "Jacket seen as Lefty's to lose."

He will tee off with 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein at 1:48 p.m. Thursday, a threesome that will unintentionally serve as a subtle reminder about the role of chance and fate. It was Ogilvy who won the '06 Open at Winged Foot after Mickelson double-bogeyed the 18th hole.

Mickelson has almost prided himself on his unpredictability, which is one reason why it seemed foolish to call the 2011 Masters over before it begins. Perhaps he peaked a week too early.

Or perhaps he won't react well to hearing this is his Masters to lose. His peers certainly didn't want to hear it Tuesday.

"As a competitor I don't buy into that," said Nick Watney, who is coming off a win at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, and who has finished no worse than 13th this season. "There's a lot of golf to be played and anything can happen."

"It's premature to say the tournament is Phil's to lose," Henrik Stenson said. "That's something you say about a guy who has a three-shot lead on Sunday."

Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 champion who won't compete this week for the second straight year, put it this way: "Who knows? Sometimes you can play great one week and the next week you can't hit a cow in the ass with a bass fiddle."

Nick Faldo and others have mentioned Mickelson's stamina and the need to rest after winning Sunday. Indeed, while Mickelson won the 2006 BellSouth Classic and the Masters in back-to-back weeks, he's concerned about focus. He was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis last summer and admittedly has had trouble staying sharp over 72 holes, suffering lapses even while making 18 birdies last weekend.

He says he feels well -- Mickelson and his trainer, Sean Cochran, worked out at a nearby gym on Monday night -- and his muscles certainly know what to do at Augusta National.

"This is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest," Mickelson said. "I mean, I've been working out for it. I saw a back specialist last night and continue to see [the specialist], just to make sure that my back hangs in there. It feels terrific, but I've been working on it for some time just to make sure it's strong enough to withstand the type of rotational speed that I'm going to be trying to apply this week, because I believe it's a big advantage if you can move it out there."

Mickelson averaged just over 297 yards off the tee in winning the 2010 Masters, and as Woods mentioned Tuesday, he missed in all the right places. That comes from experience. Mickelson scouted Augusta the weeks of the Cadillac and the Shell Houston last month. He saw the subtle changes to the 11th and 17th greens.

Just as important, he was reminded why he plays golf.

"I'm 40, so 38-and-a-half years I've been playing this game," Mickelson said. "I love it and have such a passion for it. But when I come here it reminds me of that. I could easily forget week-in and week-out, playing the PGA Tour, how lucky I am to play this game. When I come back to Augusta National, I just remember how much I loved it as a kid, dreamt of playing the Tour, of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament and being part of it. All of the feelings come back when I drive down Magnolia Lane."

 

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