Made for each other: Phil and Augusta National
Note: This story appeared in the April 1, 2011, issue of Golfweek.
“So, let me get this straight. The man has a dinosaur in his house and once tried out for the Toledo Mud Hens. Is he for real?”
“Actually, it’s a dinosaur head. It’s not the entire dinosaur. We’re not talking Jurassic Park, for crying out loud. It was a gift from his wife. Pretty cool, if you think about it. The old ‘What do you get the guy who has everything?’ sort of thing. And the Toledo Mud Hens? Hey, every American kid dreams of playing Major League Baseball. He was invited, so what was he going to do, turn it down? Yeah, he’s real.”
“But the meteorite . . . ”
“Another gift from his wife. What, you think she should have simply called the International Star Registry?”
“You have to wonder, though: Is this guy serious?”
“Phil Mickelson, serious? Are you kidding me? He’s very, very serious.”
“The Masters. Let’s start with that. The man simply cherishes every morsel of the tournament. Forget dinosaurs and meteorites. How about the gift he’s been given every April? Oh, yeah, he’s very serious about that.”
Every player’s love affair with the Masters has a starting point. For Mickelson, it was that Sunday in 1980, when, as a 9-year-old, he watched from his couch as his favorite player, Seve Ballesteros, captured his first green jacket.
“He told our mother, ‘I’m going to win that someday,’ ” Tim Mickelson said. “I’m sure she laughed, but he said, ‘I don’t think you understand, Mom.’ ”
Years later, Mary Mickelson understood.
“I feel like Augusta National and the Masters gives every kid who dreams of playing, who dreams of playing professionally, who dreams of winning major championships, something to strive for,” Phil Mickelson said. “And when we arrive at Augusta, it exceeds our dreams, which is hard to do.”
Come Masters time, Mickelson is seemingly reborn, like springtime grass after a long winter.
“I love this place,” he said. “I love coming here.”
Jim Mackay, the only caddie Mickelson has employed since turning pro in 1992, wonders if again it doesn’t circle back to that 1980 Masters.
“I think he made a decision even back then that he loved the way Seve played, with a dramatic flair and a swashbuckle attitude,” Mackay said. “Phil is a very goal-oriented player, and I think he patented himself after Seve a little. It rewards the way he loves to play. That’s one of the reasons why he loves Augusta.”
But it’s a two-way street, because Augusta National seemingly senses Mickelson’s passion and loves him right back. A scene from the aftermath of the first of Mickelson’s three Masters wins, in 2004, is something Mackay said he’ll never forget.
“I was helping him pack his car. We were going to go to his house, and I saw that people kept coming up to Phil to give him hugs. It was 10 o’clock, and I had never seen these guys before. I figured I had known Phil well enough so that I should know someone who was hugging (him), but I didn’t know them,” Mackay said.
“Then I found out they were guys who worked in the locker room. They were happy for Phil, but sad because they said they were losing him to the Champions’ Locker Room.”
Mickelson's first taste of Augusta came in 1991, when the '90 U.S. Amateur champion tuned up with Rocco Mediate (left) and Arnold Palmer in a practice round. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)
Brad Faxon never understood the furor over Mickelson’s flirtation with pro baseball in Toledo. “He’s playful,” Faxon said. “He tries stuff and has fun doing it.”
Even if the mission is near impossible, such as playing pro baseball, or table tennis against Faxon, Mickelson isn’t afraid to take on a challenge.
“He’ll want a game and he’ll tell me about the pingpong guy he’s working with back home,” said Faxon, who played table tennis competitively years ago. “He’ll be sweating, working hard, but he’ll also ask me to show him stuff.”
That hits at something central to the Mickelson persona: He’s inquisitive and acquisitive. He might lose colleagues when he talks of solving the Social Security mess or get them shaking their heads when talking about outer space or books by Stephen Hawking, “but give him credit,” Faxon said. “He’s not afraid to talk to anybody about anything.”
That’s another reason why Mickelson considers every visit to Augusta National to be a sort of pilgrimage.
The membership is pretty much a Who’s Who in America’s corporate world. You can be sure that Mickelson embraces what is perhaps the country’s premier networking ground.
Triumphant in three of the past seven Masters, Mickelson can be talked about in the same respectful tones usually reserved for the likes of Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. But even before the green jackets started piling up, Mickelson coveted this major.
Mackay remembers their third tournament together, the New England Classic in 1992, and the left-hander already was talking of needing a win to qualify for the Masters. He had played in 1991 as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, but now that he was a pro, it was a different theater, so when he charged on Sunday with a 66 to get to 14 under, Mickelson thought he had a shot. Only Faxon beat him by two.
Mickelson never got any closer in his remaining eight tournaments, so he concluded 1992 without a win – or a Masters spot. He took care of that early in 1993, a win at the Buick Invitational earning him a ticket to Augusta, and Mackay doesn’t underestimate “how huge that was, because even then, all he wanted was the Masters.”
Tied for 34th that first time as a professional, Mickelson has played 16 Masters since and fared worse only in 1997, when he missed his only cut. Thirteen times, he has been top 10, but apart from the victories in 2004, ’06 and last year, perhaps the most intriguing stretch at Augusta National was 2001-03, when he finished third each year.
It was the latter April that amplifies Mickelson’s passion for the Masters. Distraught over the way in which he was hitting the ball, “he stood on the range and just couldn’t stop overhooking a 4-iron,” Mackay said. “He had no command at all.”
What’s more, he had no desire to stay at the range and figure it out. Stunning to even his closest friends, Mickelson left the practice range and retired to his rented home, where he closed his eyes and visualized the shots he would need to get it around Augusta National.
With hardly any practice, Mickelson shot 73-70-72-68 – “Maybe his greatest performance, the way he was hitting it,” Mackay said – and was just two strokes out of the Mike Weir-Len Mattiace playoff.
It was his 11th Masters without tasting victory. By now, he was universally acclaimed as “the best player without a major,” a storyline writers seemed obsessed with, though Tim Mickelson used to chuckle.
“It might have bugged him a little bit,” said Phil’s younger brother, “but I know my brother and I can tell you, he wasn’t sitting at home letting it ruin his life.”
His next visit made it all academic, for on Easter Sunday in 2004, Mickelson realized the dream he had shared with his mother 24 years earlier. He finally was a Masters winner, and in addition to the hugs with the locker-room attendants that evening, there was a party at his rented home to which many were invited to try on the famed prize.
“But I’ll always remember Phil,” Mackay said. “He had on black gym pants, a black shirt and the green jacket. I had never seen him happier.”
Mickelson's memorable clinching birdie at No. 18 during the 2004 Masters, his first major title. (Getty Images/Andrew Redington)
Like many who are blessed with trips to the Masters every spring, Mickelson loves the routines. He plays the week before, so he takes Monday off and helps everyone get settled into the two homes he rents; early Tuesday features a practice-round game set up weeks earlier; Wednesday is the Par 3 Contest, now with his three children (Amanda, Sophia and Evan) involved; weekend mornings he likes to play chess with Sophia at a local coffee shop.
They even extend to those trips he makes in March for practice sessions. Mackay usually accompanies Mickelson on the first one, and the trips always start with a ritual. “I don’t think he’s ever not gone into the pro shop to buy a shirt,” Mackay said.
More often than not, Mickelson plays practice rounds with member Jeff Knox, a standout amateur who has served as a marker in past Masters.
When the day is done, Mickelson dines in the clubhouse, then stays in one of the cabins, his evenings spent watching movies of past Masters. Yes, 2004, ’06 and ’10 are top choices, but 1975 and ’86 (both unforgettable Jack Nicklaus triumphs) are favorites, too.
At Augusta National, “I feel when I play here, I don’t have to play perfect,” he said. “It’s why I feel so at ease here.”
Just like Palmer or Nicklaus – iconic champions who are now members. So respected is Mickelson within the Augusta gates that the story has been told of the annual Sunday dinner in 2006 to honor that day’s Masters winner. Hootie Johnson, then Augusta National’s chairman, asked Mickelson what he thought of the new trees that had been planted down the right side of the par-4 11th. Mickelson, comfortable in the Augusta environment, told Johnson there was one tree that didn’t belong and he singled it out. The next day, sources said, the tree was cut down.
It was at the same dinner where Mickelson, a major champion with the needle, too, discreetly told Johnson that it was a night to bring out “the really, really good stuff” from Augusta National’s legendary wine cellar. Johnson nodded his head and told the waiter that on this evening, “be sure to give Mr. Mickelson the check.”
There was good cheer all around. There usually is when Mickelson is present on the incomparable Augusta National stage.
Serious stuff, the Masters. But in so many other golf moments he is – well, he’s Mickelson, which is to say he’s like no one else. Take one of those annual summer trips when PGA Tour members were invited guests of former President George H.W. Bush to Kennebunkport, Maine.
Dinner that night was at a favorite rustic spot, Stripers Waterside Restaurant, and as was custom, the invited guests came with small tokens of appreciation. Faxon and his wife, Dory, watched Phil and Amy present a small box to the former president, and for several minutes it was unwrapped.
And unwrapped. And unwrapped.
“It was so funny,” Faxon said. “There was a box inside of a box inside of a box and when President Bush got to the gift he had to unwrap bubble wrap.”
“It was a rock,” Faxon said.
Actually, it was a small piece of a meteorite, and Mickelson not only explained what it was but told everyone from which galaxy it came.
“We all laughed,” Faxon said. “It was hysterical.”
Vintage Mickelson, because you know what?
“It was a great, great gift,” Faxon said. “What do you get the president who has everything?”
The man who has everything – including a dinosaur head and unrelenting passion for the Masters – figured it out.