Soft Augusta? Mickelson sees 'birdie-fest'

Phil Mickelson checks his notebook on the first green during a practice round for the Masters.

Phil Mickelson checks his notebook on the first green during a practice round for the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Perhaps only one other player in the field -- that Tiger fellow -- has a better grasp of Augusta National’s subtleties than three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson. Imagine his frustration, then, as nearly a week’s worth of planning and preparation “may go by the wayside” unless the course dries up -- fast.

“As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of pins. The greens are soft,” Mickelson said Tuesday during his pre-tournament news conference. “I don’t want to say they are slow, but it’s just not the same Augusta. It’s wet around the greens, and there’s no fear of the course. You’ve got to attack it this week.”

Such conditions allow for the possibility that a young player, an inexperienced player, can play aggressively and turn the Masters into a “birdie-fest,” Mickelson said. Typically, experience is paramount at Augusta -- from knowing what angles to take off the tee, to knowing where to miss with approach shots, to remembering the breaks -- not necessarily reading them -- on the undulating putting surfaces.

“When the subtleties don’t come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important,” Mickelson said. “You don’t have to fear the greens, and you don’t have to know where the ball will end up, and you don’t have to fear certain shots because you can get up-and-down from the edges.”

Last week, Mickelson conducted his usual pre-Masters research, spending three days in Augusta before heading to Texas for the Shell Houston Open. The conditions then couldn’t have been more dissimilar to what he sees now, a course softened by rain earlier in the week.

Though he was encouraged by the progress in his past two starts (T-24 at Bay Hill; T-4 in Houston), Mickelson has yet to fully rediscover the form that led to a rousing victory in February at Pebble Beach, where he dusted Woods, head-to-head, by 11 shots. Nonetheless, Lefty always is a threat to contend here at Augusta, where he has captured three jackets in the past eight years.

But the narrative has changed, undoubtedly. A year ago, Mickelson was the heavy favorite heading into the Masters because of his track record and a sizzling victory in Houston. A run at Augusta never materialized however, and he eventually tied for 27th.

Handicapping the field, where is he viewed now? Behind Woods? Behind Rory McIlroy? Behind Luke Donald or Lee Westwood or Hunter Mahan, none of whom has won a major?

For his part, Mickelson said he was “cool with” not being the odds-on favorite to win this week. All he can control, he said, was the way he plays starting Thursday. That usually silences all the other noise.

“Because everybody is sharp,” Mickelson said, “I think the scores are going to be low, and I’ve got to be sharp from day one, from shot one, to be able to compete and be in it for Sunday.”

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