Maginnes On Tap: Augusta is Mickelson's turf

Phil Mickelson dons the green jacket after winning the 2006 Masters.

Phil Mickelson dons the green jacket after winning the 2006 Masters.

Phil Mickelson is never going to win as many majors as Tiger Woods. He isn’t going to win as many tournaments. But there is one thing that Mickelson can do that might make all the difference in his Hall of Fame career. Mickelson can top Woods in green jackets. Woods has gotten in Mickelson’s way for a decade and a half now, stealing the spotlight as he steals title after title. Mickelson has never been the No. 1 player in the world. He has never won a U.S. Open or a British Open, but he does have three green jackets.

Mickelson is one of the greatest players in history. He is that rare competitor in sports who lives up to all the hype. He also had the great misfortune of playing nearly his entire career against the guy who many still think will go down as the greatest player of all time.

Imagine the Masters 40 years from now, if you can. Woods is 76 and Mickelson is 81. Imagine for a moment the Champions Dinner and the ceremonial first shot. Provided both men stay healthy and remain a part of the game’s fabric, they will be there. They will be honored and they will respond. Both already have done enough in their Masters careers to ensure that their legacy is tethered to the legacy of the Masters.

The hills at Augusta National always have brought out the best in Mickelson - well, except for maybe that leap when he won in 2004 (surely the worst in major-championship history). When Mickelson’s putt dropped on 18 and he jumped just high enough to knock the monkey off his back, he and Augusta seemed fated. Mickelson has added two more green jackets to his wardrobe and seems to be perpetually in contention. The only two years in which he has failed to contend at the Masters during the past decade and a half were the ones he played as the defending champion. In 2007, he finished 24th; last year, he finished 27th.

At The Barclays in 2010, just before the PGA Tour playoffs, I asked Mickelson’s long-time putting coach Dave Stockton if Mickelson could consider the year a success even though he had spent most weeks struggling. The aging putting guru and two-time major champion paused and smiled. I was waiting for pearls of wisdom but instead got just four words.

“He won the Masters.”

For all that Woods and Mickelson have accomplished at Augusta, somehow there seems to be more at stake this year. For Woods, a victory this week would be the culmination of a comeback from the abyss. For Mickelson, it would mean something else entirely.

For Mickelson it would mean that he has the same number of green jackets as that other guy. It would mean that there is only one player in history who has more.

Predicting how Mickelson will play on any course always has been sketchy, at best. Last year, he shot 16 under on the weekend at Houston and stormed into Augusta, where he didn’t break 70 in any round at the Masters. But time is starting to get away from Mickelson, and this is Augusta National. He hasn’t missed a cut here since 1997, and he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in consecutive years in 14 years.

Everywhere Mickelson goes, he garners a tremendous amount of attention. But once again, Woods will be the focus of attention this week. Rory McIlroy, who squandered a back-nine lead in last year's Masters and then romped to victory in the U.S. Open, certainly will have a white-hot spotlight on him as well.

Mickelson won’t fly completely under the radar, but he won’t be the focus of attention early in the week. And that may just be the way he likes it.

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