AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson played alongside Bryson DeChambeau at Augusta National on Tuesday, two days ahead of the 80th Masters, the two former U.S. Amateur champions taking on Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley in one of Mickelson’s feisty and famous Tuesday matches.
This is DeChambeau’s first trip to the Masters, and Mickelson’s 24th. Quite honestly, you couldn’t tell which player is more excited.
Augusta National does something to Phil Mickelson, who first visited the Masters as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion in 1991, or two-plus years before DeChambeau arrived to the planet. To Mickelson and his entire family, it’s an annual love fest, and his play reflects how he feels about the tournament: 23 starts, 3 victories, 9 top 3s, 15 top 10s, only two missed cuts. At Augusta, he doesn’t lack for inspiration.
“It’s so fun for me to be able to be a part of this event every year and to be able to come back and be a part of the (Champions) dinner tonight, to be a part of this great tournament,” he said. “The Masters has given myself and every young golfer something to aspire to, to dream of, and to be able to be part of its history means more to me than anything.”
Mickelson said he looks forward to the tournament more and more with each passing April. To him, the inherent beauty of Augusta National lies in the tournament’s smallest attention to detail. Take the Champions Locker Room, for instance. There’s one way to get a locker there – win the Masters, which Mickelson has done thrice – so it’s an exclusive club, with only 32 living past champions. Augusta National went to the expense of completely refurbishing the room this year before it affixed Jordan Spieth’s nameplate to a locker he now shares with Arnold Palmer.
“That’s an example of what makes this tournament so great,” Mickelson said. “Again, nobody is going to see this. . . nobody except for the past champions, and there’s only, what, 30 or so living past champions that it’s going to affect, and they want to do it right and have every detail right.
“And I think that they do that for every experience. . . Every detail is done to perfection.”
So we know what makes Augusta National great. But what makes the big left-hander great, especially at this tournament? Well, it’s his keen attention to small detail, too. Mickelson has his own notes – kept on a pad as thick as a reporter’s notebook, his younger brother, Tim, says – that he’s kept through his two-plus decades of competing at Augusta, detailing so many observations from past years. There are notes on which way every conceivable putt on the golf course breaks. On top of that, Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, has a book showing every shot Mickelson ever has struck on the par 3s here, making notations of club choice and wind direction.
When Phil got knocked out on Friday two weeks ago at the WGC-Dell Match Play, Tim, who coaches the men’s golf team at Arizona State, sent his brother a text, joking that he was free if Phil wanted to tee it up at Augusta National on the weekend. Next thing you know, Phil made a couple calls, Tim was on a red-eye flight, and the two were on the first tee at 11:30 a.m. a couple Sundays ago. Phil didn’t just want to play, but wished to show his little brother ever nook of the place, taking him up to Augusta National’s famed Crow’s Nest, where the amateurs stay atop the clubhouse, and inside the Champions Locker Room.
Mickelson got in his heavy prep work at Augusta Monday through Wednesday of last week, and now he’s here just fine-tuning his game, working on his chipping and putting, getting his speeds right, and making sure the distance control on his irons is there. When it comes to knowing the layout – where he can miss, where he can’t – nobody knows its nuances better.
“Phil is certainly in his element here,” Tim said while watching his brother play the back nine on Tuesday. “He loves everything about being here. You know, kids love Disneyland, and Phil loves this place.”
The last two seasons on the PGA Tour have not been great for Mickelson, who still is seeking his first victory since capturing the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. He hasn’t won in 54 starts, but he does have three top-5 finishes this season. Since taking on Andrew Getson as his swing coach in 2015, Mickelson has appeared re-energized. He has shallowed out his plane and is driving the ball better. The game, he says, feels easy to him once again.
That means once his homework is finished at The National, he should be in position to make another run at a green jacket. If he could win a fourth one, he’d pull even with Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, and only Jack Nicklaus (six) would stand taller. Nicklaus was 46 when he won his last Masters 30 years ago. Mickelson will turn 46 this summer, but he says physically, he feels fine. There’s no shortage of fuel, and he wants to excel once more.
“I don’t feel distance is any factor as far as holding me back,” said Mickelson, whose average driving distance in 2016 (298.8) is three yards longer than it was in 2004, when he won his first Masters. “Now that I’m starting to drive the ball reasonably straight and not have as many wild drives, I feel like I’m able to play and compete a lot easier, like the game is just a lot easier. So we’ll see.
“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. I feel like my game is coming along.”
And for Mickelson, it couldn’t come at a better time. He and DeChambeau didn’t prevail in their match on Tuesday, but for Mickelson, if things fall just right, there could be a bigger prize this week. At Augusta, for him, the magic stirs and anything is possible.
“I think that he definitely thinks he’s going to win another one,” Tim Mickelson said. “And the way he’s been playing, he certainly has a lot of confidence.”