Phil Mickelson wheeled down Magnolia Lane early last week with 91 inches of driver and an air of invincibility normally reserved for Tiger Woods and the New York Yankees.
He was fresh from a 13-shot lapping of the BellSouth Classic field and his daring two-driver rotation created a buzz that was eclipsed only by talk of a beefed-up Augusta National Golf Club in need of a steroid test.
One hundred fifty-five additional yards of manicured turf awaited the bombers, and Mickelson’s two-canon arsenal appeared to be the answer to all those 450-yard-plus par 4s.
But on the way to his second green jacket, and his third victory in golf’s last nine grand get-togethers, Mickelson had to contend with an Augusta National that became crusty and cruel. The 70th Masters, as it always does, became the Spring Putting Championship.
“The guy that hits the most blues (as in overcooked greens) on Sunday and putts defensively will win this,” said one observer as he gazed across the sun-baked putting surfaces early in the week.
Mickelson didn’t make every putt, but he made enough. Lefty was middle-of-the-heap in putting, rolling in a 1.611 average per hole to rank 16th in the field. But he made the crucial putts while those around him didn’t.
In painful order, anyone with a chance to catch Mickelson faded on Augusta’s fading greens.
Fred Couples showed why no player has won a Grand Slam event using a long putter. He cracked first at No. 11 Sunday when his par putt danced around the edge of the cup. Three holes later, Couples dropped hopelessly out of contention when he needed three swipes from 4 feet.
“If you can’t rescue yourself with your putter out here, you can’t play,” said Olin Browne, who finished 45th.
Things were so bad for Tiger Woods on the slick greens that caddie Steve Williams rifled his man’s blade at Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, as he came off the 18th green Sunday: “Break the (expletive) thing,” Williams hissed.
Woods concurred: “I’m probably going to go snap this putter into eight pieces.”
In Round 4, Woods never trailed by more than five strokes, but his putting repeatedly failed him. He took 33 putts in the final round, nearly 31⁄2 more than his season average, including three three-putt greens.
“If I would have just putted normal,” said Woods, whose final-round 70 left him three shots behind Mickelson. “I was short, long, you name it. I had more 10-footers for birdie and eagle and missed them all.”
The tale of putting pain was felt by many. Rich Beem led the field in greens in regulation (76.39 percent), but jack-hammered his way to a 1.82 putting average, worst among those who played 72 holes. Ditto for Vijay Singh (1.64 average) and Brandt Jobe (1.67 average).
Mickelson’s double-driver experiment – a 46-inch Callaway he used to draw the ball and his usual 45-inch model that was set up for a fade – likely will end now that he turns his attention to the U.S. Open and a possible “Phil Slam.”
“It’s nice to see that the draw was a successful draw. Not the old draw that was kind of flippy,” said Rick Smith, Mickelson’s swing coach who estimated Lefty used the longer “draw” driver 65 percent of the time. “It was a solid, ripping, high-trajectory draw.”
After his steady, if unspectacular, week on the greens, however, it’s safe to say Mickelson’s prototype Odyssey putter will be in the bag for a long while.