Mickelson already looking forward to title defense at Augusta

Mickelson already looking forward to title defense at Augusta

Phil Mickelson will defend his title at the Masters in April.
Robert Beck/SI

In the seven years since Phil Mickelson rolled in an 18-footer for birdie to win his first Masters, he has made a point in every ensuing Masters of returning to that same spot on the 18th green at Augusta National to re-create the magic with a few practice putts.

Since then, the most memorable shot Mickelson has struck at Augusta came last year at the par-5 13th hole on Sunday, when he ripped a daring 6-iron through two pines over Rae’s Creek to within four feet of the hole. Mickelson missed the putt, but the tap-in birdie propelled him to a 67 and his third green jacket.

During a teleconference with the media Tuesday, Mickelson said that he also plans a return trip to his newest sacred spot during this year’s Masters, though only during the practice rounds.

“I do plan on hitting the fairway all four days,” he said, laughing.

With Phil of course, one never knows what to expect. Since winning the 2010 Masters, he has made 16 stroke-play starts without a victory. In August, he revealed that he has psoriatic arthritis, a potentially debilitating condition. And in the last seven months or so he has converted from carnivore to Five Guys-shunning vegetarian and back again.

All the way back. Mickelson said that not only is he planning on serving meat at this year’s champions dinner, but that he’s also considering a veritable smorgasbord of options. “I’ve learned one thing over the years,” he said. “Many of the past champions — they love beef. And because of that I plan on having a trio of different meats, whether it be bison or venison or filet.” What, no rabbit?

Mickelson also revealed that he extended a personal invitation to three-time winner Seve Ballesteros, who is home in Spain fighting brain cancer. “I just sent him an e mail saying that if he were able to come and feeling healthy enough to be able to make this tournament, I would love to have the dinner be something that he would like, like a Spanish dish of paella,” Mickelson said. “I wanted to kind of honor him.”

Ballesteros is unlikely to make it, Mickelson added, “so our thoughts and prayers are going to be with him that evening.”

After 18 Masters appearances and three wins, Lefty has learned a lot more about the tournament than simply what to serve on Tuesday night. He has mastered the subtleties of Augusta National, what clubs to hit, and, perhaps most important for Mickelson, where he can afford to miss. “I have this feeling of confidence, that I know how to play the golf course, that I don’t have to play it perfectly, and that the strength of my game, which is short game, can often save or salvage rounds and pars for me and keep me in contention,” said Mickelson, who has finished out of the top 10 just once since 1999.

“It’s a great feeling of confidence when I drive through the gates of Magnolia [Lane], and I think that’s been one of the reasons why I’ve been successful there.”

Good vibes aside, Mickelson is not the favorite to win in April. According to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes, the struggling Tiger Woods, at 5-1 odds, is most likely to go home with the green jacket; Ladbrokes lists Mickelson at 6-1.

Those figures jibe with a recent Golf Magazine poll of 40 PGA Tour professionals. When asked whether Mickelson or Woods is more likely to win the 2011 Masters, nearly 60 percent chose Woods. (The complete poll results will appear in the magazine’s April issue.)

If Mickelson does win his fourth green jacket (and not another tournament before then), it will represent his 39th PGA Tour victory. He said today that his goal is to reach 50. “There’s something magical about that number,” Mickelson said. “Billy Casper, I believe, won 50 tournaments. And I just remember thinking what an impressive display of longevity and competitive golf he’s put forth to win that many events.

“And although it’s not with the greats of a Nicklaus or a Palmer, Tiger, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, it’s certainly up there and certainly something I would be very proud to do, especially in this day and age.”