AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jim Mackay was still in his caddie overalls on Sunday evening as he loaded Phil Mickelson’s clubs into a Chevy Suburban outside Augusta National’s clapboard clubhouse. Mickelson’s solid-though-not-spectacular 69 in the final round of the 79th Masters had left him with yet another runner-up finish in a major. That’s 10 in all if you’re scoring at home, which ties Arnold Palmer for second-most all time. (Jack Nicklaus’s 19 silver medals in the majors will never be touched.)
“Let’s see,” said Mackay, now seated in the trunk, legs dangling over the bumper. “Six U.S. Opens, one British — that makes seven — two PGAs and now here makes 10.
“But he’s had a nice career,” Mackay added with a toothy grin. “He’s cruising along.”
Not so much of late, though. Mickelson may have tied for second in the last two majors, but he also hasn’t recorded a win since he raised the claret jug at Muirfield. That was 21 months ago. To be fair, Mickelson fought a balky back in 2014. He tweaked it in an early-season start in Abu Dhabi and later withdrew from Torrey Pines, citing the same injury. “He was more hurt than he let on,” Mackay says. “I was with him when he was flying people to Abu Dhabi and other places to try and get him well.”
In the off-season, Mickelson spent long hours in the gym strengthening his back and otherwise toning up. He is five yards longer off the tee than he was last year and 10 yards longer than he was in ’13.
The prevailing belief is that Lefty is so ultra-focused on the majors that he treats regular Tour stops as a ballplayer does spring training — tweaking, fine-tuning, maybe a little schmoozing on the range. If he should happen to go home with a trophy during those weeks, well, thank you very much.
“If you heard the conversation we had on the 18th green today, you’d know that’s not true,” Mackay said in the parking lot. “The first thing he said to me after tapping in on 18 was, ‘Let’s go get them at the Match Play.’
“He wants to compete. He’s the same old Phil.”
He certainly was this week. Mickelson played the first three rounds in 11 under. Most years that would have made him the 54-hole leader. This year it left him five back of a 21-year-old buzz saw named Jordan Spieth. If he had any chance of catching Spieth, Mickelson figured he needed an “exceptional” round, like 65 or better. But when he erased a birdie at the par-5 8th with a bogey at the par-4 9th to turn in 36, that goal was all but unattainable.
“He was really unlucky on 9,” Mackay said. “He hit a great shot in there and the ball stopped on an area of the green where I don’t think the ball is supposed to. It was weird. It stopped between the first and second level and he couldn’t get the putt within seven or eight feet.”
Mackay said that the greens were “a couple of notches quicker” Sunday than they had been the rest of the week, which made the course less getable. “The opportunity to make six, seven, eight birdies like we all thought was going to be there when we saw the pin sheets was a little harder to do.”
Mickelson’s imprecise ballstriking didn’t help, either. He found just half the fairways on Sunday and only 11 greens in regulation to go along with a pair of three-putts. But Phil being Phil, he wasn’t about to pout about it. After his drive on 10 got held up in the right rough, Mickelson strolled down the fairway lockstep with Mackay and said, “Let’s go have the best nine of our lives.” He then drilled a 7-iron from 204 yards to six feet. Birdie.
More theatrics followed at 15 after Mickelson dumped his second shot on the make-or-break par-5 into the bunker right of the green. With his next swing, he holed out for eagle to move to 14 under and back to within five of Spieth. With Spieth refusing to give an inch, however, Mickelson’s mini-surge proved futile.
“I just simply got outplayed,” he said. Him and everyone else.
And so we look ahead on the major calendar to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, outside Seattle, where Mickelson will celebrate his 45th birthday. Neither Mickelson nor Mackay have visited the topsy-turvy links hard against the Puget Sound, but “we hear it’s a lot like British Open, which was music to Phil’s ears,” Mackay says.
Mickelson doesn’t plan to spend too many hours scouting the course in the same way that he didn’t spend “an inordinate amount of time” preparing for Muirfield. “I just got my game sharp, and I think I’ll probably take that approach more with Chambers Bay,” Mickelson said.
Mackay, meanwhile, plans to pick the brain of Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, who used to carry bags at Chambers. “We’re all going to be trying to take him to dinner that week,” Mackay said.
The bagman was upbeat as he closed the rear door of his Suburban and walked back into the clubhouse to reconnect with Mickelson and his camp. And why not? His boss may be in the autumn of his career, but they still have many more trips down Magnolia Lane to enjoy together.
“I think Phil has the chance to do something unexpected here — unexpected in the same kind of framework as Jack winning at 46,” Mackay said. “I’ve always thought that about Phil. He might just shock a lot of people.”