With all the frenzied speculation about Tiger Woods’s status for this Masters, it’s easy to overlook a similar question that surrounds his longtime foil: Will Phil Mickelson show up at Augusta National? I mean, we know that Lefty will be there in body, but what about spirit? Mickelson, 44, has looked largely uninterested so far in 2015, a continuation of the malaise that plagued him throughout 2014. When he won the 2013 British Open, Mickelson called it the greatest victory of his career, a validation of the completeness of his game. It was tempting to think that the triumph at Muirfield would launch the last act of a Hall of Fame career, during which Mickelson would finally snag a U.S. Open and continue his ascent on the unofficial pecking order of the all-time greats. But the cruel thing about golf is that you never know when your last victory will come. Ian Baker-Finch, David Duval and Mark O’Meara reached the pinnacle of their careers with a victory at the British. None of them won again.
Of course, Mickelson has more game and want than any of those three, and he can take a punch as well as any man who has ever laced up his spikes. Just a few weeks before his win at Muirfield he had booted away another U.S. Open, at Merion. At the end of that wrenching Father’s Day I walked with Phil Mickelson Sr. as he beat a hasty retreat from the grounds. His pride in his son was evident. “He has a lot of resiliency,” he said. “No matter how many times he gets his heart broken he keeps throwing himself into the fray.”
If there is any tournament at which Mickelson can will himself into contention, it’s clearly the Masters. Only Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods have won more than Phil’s three green jackets, and his consistency there is remarkable for such a flighty competitor: In addition to the wins he has 10 top-seven finishes, including five thirds. Mickelson is a golf romantic, and to perform his best he has to fall in love with a course. Augusta National is the great romance of his golfing life — the place where he ended his futility in the majors with an epic back nine in 2004, and the scene of his most emotional victory, in 2010, when he won for his cancer-stricken wife, Amy. If he can’t find it at Augusta National, he’ll never again find it.
What ails Mickelson right now? Pretty much everything. His driving is as crooked as ever (158th on Tour in accuracy) but he’s been deserted by his iron play, usually the strength of his long game, as he’s 156th in greens in regulation. More stunning is how bad his wedge game has been. Mickelson is 123rd in sand save percentage, 186th in scrambling from the rough and 196th in scrambling from inside 10 yards. His putting stats are just as frightful: 175th in three-putt avoidance, 119th in strokes gained.
Is there any reason to hope against hope that Mickelson can summon one last defining performance at Augusta? Well, 2014 was the worst year of his career, and he limped into the PGA Championship without a single top 10. Yet somehow he contended there until the bitter end, ultimately finishing second. Mickelson was clearly fired up competing against Rory McIlroy and his practice–round pigeon Rickie Fowler; Phil relishes the opportunity to be one of the game’s elder statesmen, a position the prickly Woods has never seemed particularly comfortable with.
Someday in the distant future Tiger and Phil will be the honorary starters at the Masters. It’s easy to imagine who will get the loudest ovation — Woods was revered but never quite beloved like Mickelson has been. Neither of these proud champions considers himself a ceremonial golfer yet, even if the end appears nigh. Here’s hoping both can claw their way back from the brink.
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