AUGUSTA, Ga. — You know that old maxim about death, taxes and Phil Mickelson contending at the Masters? It’s not true anymore — well, not the last part, at least. In Mickelson’s 14 Masters appearances from 1999 to 2012, he won three times (2004, ’06, ’10), finished third four times and finished outside the top 10 just once. Since then? Six starts, two missed cuts, one top 10. One!
It happens. The Masters may not age but its contestants do. Arnold, Jack, Watson, Kite, Fred, Veej. Eventually, they all age out. The holes start to feel longer (and, often, actually are longer). The corridors start to feel narrower (and, often, actually are narrower). Three-footers start to feel like six-footers. Sixty-eights turn into 72s, 72s into 76s, 76s into … well, at that point it’s probably time to spend your Masters week sipping Azaleas under the old oak.
Phil’s not there yet. Not even close. He will turn 49 in June but he still has plenty of pimento in the tank. “This is a place that you drive up Magnolia Lane and things just change for everyone,” Mickelson said Tuesday afternoon in Augusta National’s resplendent press building. “You just have that special feeling, that special remembrance of when you were a kid and dreaming of coming here and playing, and it brings out oftentimes the best in everyone.”
It brought out the best in Jack Nicklaus in 1986. You remember that week — the Bear has come out of hibernation! If Jack could pull off that bit of wizardry at 46, you better believe Phil can do the same at 48.
For one, distance, or lack thereof, is not a problem for Mickelson. On the contrary, he is positively obsessed with pounding drives. Dude’s a yardage junky. During his Tuesday range session, Phil wasn’t worried about his bunker play or the flight of his irons. Nope, he had the need for speed. “All I wanted to do today was just speed it up, get my speed up — that I can accelerate, and hit it the distance that I want to. I anticipate it being warm. I anticipate distance being a big factor, and if it rains, distance will be an even bigger factor, so I want to make sure my speed is up. That’s what today’s session was. Just top out and see how fast I could get it, and then try to build up to maximize speed throughout the week.”
Later in the press conference, Mickelson was asked if he’s driving the ball straighter this week than in years past. “I don’t know,” he woofed, “but I’m hitting it far and that’s all I care about right now.”
The numbers bear it out. His average driving distance this season is nearly 305 yards (thanks to his blazing 120-mph clubhead speed). That’s five yards longer than he was hitting it in 2018 and 10 yards longer than his average poke in 2017. If those 305-yard drives find the short stuff at Augusta, Phil and his superhuman short game will be a threat. This year. Next year. In 10 years.
There is something different about this Masters, however: how Mickelson has prepared for it. He customarily plays the week before a major, but because of some scheduling mandates the Tour has enforced on its players (Mickelson did not elaborate), he elected to skip the Texas Open last week. Instead, he came to Augusta and logged four days of practice and note-jotting.
“We’re not allowed to have a greens book, so we don’t know the exact contours, so I just have to take notes on what every putt does and I just do my own thing there and take notes over the years,” he said. “I analyze if there’s any changes and make sure I’m validating the notes and making sure that they are accurate, that the putt and chip does exactly what I thought in the past or wrote down.”
You getting all this, Bryson?
By the end of last week, Mickelson was back home in San Diego rolling putts on a backyard practice green that would have made Mike Davis blush. “A little taste of Augusta,” Mickelson wrote in an Instagram post. “Spending all week putting on my green with speed at 15.6-16.”
When you play in as many Masters as Phil has — his second round this week will mark his 100th Masters round — you bank some memories. The first win in 2004, capped by the joyous leap on the 18th green. The second win in ’06. Another four years later, defined by that magical shot from the pine straw on 13. But there are other Mickelson Masters moments that the world didn’t see, like in 2010, when before his rounds, Phil would jet out to a local coffee shop with his daughter, Sofia, where they grinded over games of chess.
“Those moments are something that I kind of cherish,” he said Tuesday.
The kids are older now, the course is longer, and a new fleet of big-hitting contenders are chasing the green jacket.
But Phil is still Phil, and, who knows? This week, that might just be enough.