Professional / PGA Tour

Veteran Mickelson oozes enthusiasm at Match Play as Masters nears

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson (Getty Images)

On the surface, it would appear to be pragmatic to suggest that the challenge tossed at him by a trio of kids nearly half his age brought out the best in Phil Mickelson.

The only thing is, it’s open for debate as to whether Mickelson isn’t the youngest of the four players in Group 9.

At least in spirit and enthusiasm, that is.

Having gotten a peek at Austin Country Club only the day before, Mickelson opened his WGC-Dell Match Play on Wednesday with a resounding thumping of 21-year-old Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick, 5 and 4.

Forget that Fitzpatrick followed Mickelson into the winner’s circle at the U.S. Amateur, albeit 23 years later. Forget, too, that Fitzpatrick was just 4 when Mickelson played in the first of these Match Play tournaments. This was not about a young kid getting a lesson from a 45-year-old veteran. This was about the second-oldest player in the field showing up for work as if it were his first day on the job.

“I’m excited about the rest of this week,” Mickelson said after a day in which he went 5 up at the turn, thanks to three birdies going out and a small bucket of Fitzpatrick bogeys.

“I’m excited about the rest of the year.”

There’s no denying that “the rest of the year” can be loosely translated into the Masters in two weeks, a tournament that warms Mickelson’s engines every March. Yes, he’s already got practice rounds lined up for a few days between the end of this Match Play and the start of next week’s Shell Houston Open . . . but the part right now is finding out where this ride ends at Austin CC.

“Every round here, every day is a final round where you start even,” Mickelson said. “It has the intensity of a final round that ultimately over the course of six or seven matches, it wears you down.”

True, all of that, yet those closest to Mickelson and those who have seen him play thus far in 2016 will adamantly tell you that the left-hander hasn’t appeared this enthusiastic in years.

Of course, the challenge that awaits Thursday and Friday will require a youthful bounce because of whom Mickelson plays. Daniel Berger, 23, will be next up Thursday, with 25-year-old Patrick Reed awaiting Friday.

Wednesday, Reed birdied the first two holes and five times built a three-hole lead before holding on, 1 up, over Berger.

“I love this format,” Reed said. “It’s my favorite.”

If it sounds like Reed is riding a wave of enthusiasm, he is.

We’re just not sure that it’s not rivaled by the guy who is 20 years older.

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