AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Jack Nicklaus arrived at Augusta National Golf Club for the 1986 Masters, he was 46 years old, a fact that you will be reminded of ad nauseam this week in what is the 30th anniversary of that pine-rattling performance. It was a remarkable spectacle for many reasons, but largely because Big Jack had not won a tournament in nearly two years or a major title in nearly six. The golf world had given up on him.
Phil Mickelson, who this week is competing in his 24th Masters, turns 46 in two months. Mickelson has played well in recent weeks, with three top-5 finishes since January, but Amy and the kids have not embraced him on an 18th green in nearly three years. His last win came at the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. The golf world certainly has not given up on Phil, but, lordy, what a story it would be if he could bat back the hard-charging young’uns and slip on a fourth green jacket Sunday evening.
“We’re here on a golf course that has suited me well in the past and for the first time, I really feel like coming into this tournament, I’m not trying to find anything or search for anything,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “I feel like the game is starting to be easy again.”
Read what you will into “easy” — the wildly unpredictable Mickelson can look fully locked in one week and totally lost the next — but there’s little reason to doubt that he won’t at least put a scare into the field this week on a course where he has recorded 15 top-10s and a mind-blowing nine top-3s. It’s like a home game for Lefty. Augusta is Torrey East.
So far this year Mickelson has been a strokes-gained machine: he’s 9th in the all-important strokes gained: tee-to-green stat and 6th in strokes gained: putting, which helps explain his PGA Tour-leading 69.17 scoring average. And his “old” age hasn’t yet caught up to him on the tee box.
“I was looking at the numbers,” Mickelson said. (Phil likes his numbers.) “I was 25th in distance in 2003 at 299.3, and this year I’m 40th in distance at 299.3” — ahem, 298.8, Phil, but who’s counting? — “same distance 13 years later. So I haven’t lost any distance. There are some guys out here that hit it a ton farther, [but] I don’t feel distance is holding me back.”
One of those younger guys, Dustin Johnson, joined Mickelson for a practice round on a glorious, sun-splashed Tuesday at Augusta. Mickelson relishes razzing the younger pros, and as he and Johnson strode lockstep up the first fairway, Mickelson couldn’t resist making a not-so-subtle reference to the Masters Champions Dinner, which he will attend Tuesday night.
“So,” Mickelson chirped at D.J., “what are your plans tonight?”
Filling out Mickelson and Johnson’s foursome were Keegan Bradley and Bryson DeChambeau, the brainy U.S. Amateur champ. DeChambeau, playing in his first Masters, cozied up to Phil like a lap dog, absorbing whatever knowledge the veteran was willing to part with. “He has his little book, and he knows all the putts, the breaks and stuff,” DeChambeau said after their round. “I was just trying to get little tidbits here and there.”
At one point, Phil and Bryson struck up a complex conversation about the science of slopes and breaks and how they influence putting lines, which elicited a shake of the head from Johnson.
“If I hang around you guys much longer,” Johnson said, “I’ll never break 100.”
The playing lesson continued to the 18th green, where Mickelson banged a few 40-footers from the front of the putting surface, over a swale, to the back. When DeChambeau came down to join Mickelson and glean some more wisdom, the amateur’s caddie barked, ”Boys, they’re in the fairway behind you.” Translation: Wrap it up already. Neither player flinched. School clearly was still in session.
Mickelson will put all of his own learnings to work this week, just as Jack did in ’86, and if the course plays firm and fast, Lefty likes his chances. “It gives me what I feel like is a slight advantage, knowing where I need to be, and having hit those shots to allow me to make easy pars,” he said.
When Nicklaus prevailed here in ’86 an Atlanta columnist wrote a piece declaring that 46-year-olds don’t win the Masters. The story famously inspired Nicklaus — no, let’s be candid, it pissed him off — and the rest is Masters history. No writer would be dumb enough to make a similar proclamation this week, because a very-nearly-46-year-old could very well win this 80th Masters.
Check back Sunday.