2004: The Masters - Newfound patience spurs Mickelson

Augusta, Ga.

So when, exactly, did Phil Mickelson have this great epiphany to become a calculating, left-handed Jack Nicklaus, plotting his way around a major championship from points A to B as if seated at an Ivy League chess table?

Nicklaus in his prime wouldn’t be a far-off comparison to Mickelson at Augusta National for the 68th Masters, where the left-hander spent four days piping drives down fairways with a long, soft cut and hitting more greens (53 of 72) than anyone else in the field.

He played smartly. When he missed iron shots, he missed mostly in the right places, allowing himself opportunities to get up and down. With Augusta National’s collars and chipping areas shaved tighter than Mr. Clean, he shelved his famous flop shot for the week, opting instead for the putter from the fringe.

He didn’t putt spectacularly (117 putts), but he sustained momentum by making most every 5- and 6-footer for par. And on a golf course where temptation can lure a player into making big numbers – a lesson Mickelson has learned the hard way – he made only one double bogey, at the 170-yard 16th in his opening round. His next 56 holes, he never made worse than bogey.

“He’s under such control,” said Mickelson’s swing coach, Rick Smith, as he watched Mickelson tame Amen Corner in the third round. “How much can you prepare? This is all part of the habit that’s been created all year. This is what he’s worked so hard for.”

Mickelson prepared by stopping by Augusta National on Monday and Tuesday of the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta – a week many top players skipped – and touring the golf course with Smith and short-game wizard Dave Pelz.

Mickelson deduced that in finishing third the last three years, a shot here or a shot there could have made a major difference. So they studied the course, trying to figure ways to reduce strokes.

“What I have found is the last three years, if I could have saved a shot a round, I would have two wins and a tie,” said Mickelson. The difference between Mickelson and the winning total in 2001-03? Nine shots.

Although he has one of the most famed flop shots in golf, he decided it just isn’t a good fit at Augusta. Instead, he opted for the putter when faced with tight lies and delicate shots around the greens. On Saturday, he used putter from off the green three times, making clutch par saves at Nos. 6 and 18 and avoiding bogey at 13.

On Sunday, he made two birdies on the back-nine par 3s with bold iron plays, the latter on 16, a hole that has cost him dearly in Masters past.

“I love this kind of golf,” said Smith. “I could get used to this.”

Settling into his new green jacket, it appeared Mickelson could, too.

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