AUGUSTA, Ga.— Every April the foliage blossoms in these parts, and so does Phil Mickelson. He has always been an emotional golfer, prone to winning in places that move him: Pebble Beach, where his grandfather caddied in his youth; Torrey Pines, in Phil’s hometown; Phoenix, near his alma mater of Arizona State. But Augusta National stirs Mickelson on a metaphysical level. “It’s a spiritual place if you love golf the way we do,” he says. “You drive up Magnolia Lane and things just change for everyone.” Many players shrink from the enormity of the opportunity. Mickelson has always been inspired to play his best, and on the verge of turning 49 he is proving that he still has some magic left.
With rounds of 67-73, Phil the Thrill is in prime position to nab a fourth green jacket, only three shots off the lead. A victory would make him the oldest man ever to win a major championship, which is hard to believe given the youthful brio with which he is attacking Augusta National. “He’s swinging out of his shoes,” says Justin Thomas, who was born two years after his playing partner made his Masters debut in 1991. “It’s impressive for a guy that age. It’s fun to watch.”
Mickelson’s opening round salvo was keyed by macho work with the driver, but he made some costly mistakes on Friday: pushing his tee shot into the trees on the par-5 8th, dooming him to bogey on a birdie hole, and hooking his drive on 15 into the forest, which lead to a disappointing par. (Mickelson also made bogeys on 5 and 10 with errant drives on which he was wielding shorter clubs, and at 17 where he hit the edge of the fairway with his driver but was blocked-out by a tree on the worst hole on the course.) The good news is that Mickelson’s iron game was reliable and he made a ton of 6- to 8-footers to stay in the fight. “Usually the harder I swing the straighter it will go and today that wasn’t so much the case,” he said. “I didn’t drive the ball very well today and that’s going to be my whole key. If I hit it reasonably straight I can attack a lot of holes.”
Friday marked Mickelson’s 100th competitive round at the Masters, and he sounded a little nostalgic reliving his very first spin around Bobby Jones’s playpen, particularly the high, soft draw to a back-pin on 18 that led to a birdie and a sporty 69. Some of his most celebrated triumphs would follow – the walk-off birdie in 2004 to end his brutal majorless streak; the man-in-full, dominant victory in ’06; the deeply emotional win for his cancer-stricken wife Amy in ’10 — but there has been plenty of heartbreak, too. Mickelson knows better than anyone how fine the line is at Augusta National between glory and disaster. “You just need those little breaks, little putts here or there to go in, little things to happen that push you over to the winner’s circle,” he says. “You can’t force it. It just has to happen.”
A fourth Masters title would tie Mickelson with Arnold Palmer, his role model on aggressive play and classy comportment, and Tiger Woods, the man who has lorded over Phil’s career. Only Jack Nicklaus owns more green formal wear.
What made Big Jack’s 1986 victory so epic was the shock value: he had won only once in the preceding four years, and he was 46 in an era when few players were relevant in their 40s. Mickelson credits improvements in training, diet and equipment with extending his mind-boggling longevity, as he has claimed two big-time Tour events over the past 14 months. In his mind, winning another major championship is well within his grasp. “I think I’ve got another major in me — at least one, maybe two, and so I would love to get one right here,” Mickelson said following the second round. “But like I say, you can’t jump ahead to the end and there’s a lot of good, fun, challenging golf in between.”
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