AUGUSTA, Ga. -– Phil Mickelson says Augusta National has gone soft less than 36 hours before the start of the 2012 Masters, and if the course doesn’t dry out fast the season’s first major could turn into a “birdie-fest.”
Such a sea of red numbers could potentially negate the advantage of veterans like Mickelson and Tiger Woods, the three-time champion Mickelson added.
“It seems that some of the planning I have made may go by the wayside,” he said at his press conference at Augusta National on Tuesday afternoon. “As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of the pins. The greens are soft. I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta.”
Few in the field know the course better than Mickelson, who won here in 2004, 2006 and 2010. As Fred Couples said last week, “Augusta is a playground for Phil.” Mickelson has spent five days preparing at the course, three of them last week, to re-learn its subtleties. But a major storm hit the area last Friday and Saturday nights, another storm came through on Tuesday night, and more rain is expected Thursday, potentially altering his strategy.
“When the subtleties don't come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important,” he said, “because you don't have to fear the greens and you don't have to know where the ball will end up and you don't have to fear certain shots because you can get up-and-down from the edges.”
A year ago Mickelson came into the Masters on the heels of his victory at the Shell Houston Open, inspiring grand pronouncements that the Masters was his to lose, but it didn’t work out that way. He never contended and tied for 27th.
Much has changed. Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open last summer in a runaway. Tiger Woods won in his last start before the Masters, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill two weeks ago. Two national magazine covers, including SI Golf Plus, declared that this Masters is about Tiger vs. Rory, omitting Mickelson, who blew Tiger’s doors off with a closing 64 at Pebble Beach on Feb. 12, and who lost a sudden-death playoff to Bill Haas the next week at Riviera.
“I'm cool with it,” Mickelson said of the Rory-Tiger hubbub. “I don't have a problem with it. I am where I am and I'm fine with it.”
A column in Tuesday’s Augusta Chronicle lambasted the notion that this Masters was only a two-man race, and Lee Westwood was among the players who were equally dubious about the Tiger vs. Rory headlines. “I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that,” Westwood said. “Luke [Donald] might; I might.”
Oddsmakers also have downgraded Mickelson, making Woods the 4-1 favorite, with McIlroy at 5-1 and Mickelson, who tied for fourth in Houston last weekend, at 13-1. It’s almost as if Pebble Beach, where Mickelson beat Woods by 11 shots in the final round, didn’t happen. Keegan Bradley, who played Augusta with Mickelson last week, suggested it may be a mistake to overlook the 41-year-old.
“Just being out here with Phil is an inspiration and makes me want to win this tournament,” Bradley said, “just by the way he carries himself around here.”
Indeed, Mickelson brings some hard-won, veteran knowledge to Augusta National, including this: A par on the par-5 15th hole is nothing to be ashamed of.
“The biggest thing I've learned and the biggest thing I look back on, on my three major wins relative to the times that I've come close and have not won, has come down into a strategic change on 15 for me,” Mickelson said. “Because I played hole 15 in the past as a must-birdie, and I have made some epic numbers there [laughter] that have just shot me right out of the tournament.
“And I look at 15 totally different now,” he added. “I'll accept par. I'll take par there, and I'm not going to complain or try to force a 4.”
You can imagine Bradley or Brendan Steele -- who also joined Phil for practice rounds at Augusta last week -- jotting that down in their crisp, new Masters notebooks: Don’t sweat the failure to birdie 15. But then there was this from Mickelson on the greens, a de facto warning to the young guys: “It's easier to remember the breaks than it is to see them,” he said. “The greens are very challenging to actually see what the ball is going to do, to be able to visualize what it will do on the surface. They are so fast that everything is magnified.”
In other words, even if it rains, enabling the young guns to fire at the pins as if they were shooting darts, they’ll still have to make the putts, and that’s where they’re at a disadvantage. Mickelson, who made everything at Pebble and says he’s putting better than he has in years, will make his 20th Masters start at 1:53 p.m. Thursday. He is where he is. He likes his chances.