Achenbach: Augusta National is Lefty's house

Phil Mickelson gives a girl a a ball on the 15th hole during the third round. The 15th hole is the sight of Mickelson's improbable lob shot from off the green that resulted in an improbable birdie.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Good Sunday morning to you.

May your Easter Sunday be filled with love, peace and appreciation.

Here at the Masters, the crowd arrived early. At 7 a.m., thousands of patrons already had congregated outside the course, waiting for police and traffic coordinators to move aside.

The Masters is something like a modern reincarnation of the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s, fans rushing, even running, to plop down their green folding chairs and claim their favorite viewing spots.

The talk on this Sunday was mostly about Phil Mickelson. These fans were skipping church for a more tantalizing form of athletic worship. This is the Church of Phil.

Removing any religious context, call it the House of Phil. Even though Mickelson trails Peter Hanson, the Swedish birdie machine, by one stroke heading into the final round, flocks of fans will be greatly disappointed if Lefty does not win his fourth Masters on this lovely April day.

“I know he will win,” said a fan with a deep Southern accent. “I just know it. I feel it in my bones. I don’t even think it will be close. I see him running away with it.”

Really. It seems the power and extent of this Mickelson mania should not be minimized. Tiger Woods may be golf’s most intriguing player, but Mickelson appears to be the sport’s most popular star.

What is it about Mickelson? What is it about Mickelson and the Masters? Outside of his three major titles here, in 2004, 2006 and 2010, he has won only one other major championship, the 2005 PGA.

For starters, Mickelson knows how to smile. At 41, he has become golf’s friendliest and most accommodating superstar.

Furthermore, he knows how to talk. He has schooled himself in the art of communication. At 25, Mickelson was an awkward communicator. Today he is so skilled at talking that he has become a prominent and distinguished attraction at corporate gatherings.

Mickelson has both the common touch and the business touch.

At the Masters, Mickelson never misses an opportunity to praise the tournament and express his admiration for the course that Bobby Jones built.

“I love it here,” Mickelson said. “It has always been my favorite week of the year.”

It would be your favorite, too, if you drove the ball as far and as crooked as Mickelson. There appears to be a very good reason that Lefty has not won the U.S. Open or British Open: In general the fairways are more narrow and, in the case of the British Open, sinister pot bunkers are waiting to gobble up sideways drives.

For Mickelson, it’s all about driving the ball. If he can find his tee shots, and they aren’t entangled in some kind of trouble, he is a threat to win any tournament.

The Masters is arguably more forgiving off the tee than any other major-championship course. Sure, St. Andrews is wide open, but those devilish little bunkers are lurking everywhere.

Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 to become its oldest winner. Look for Mickelson to challenge that record. So far he has maintained his power and his flexibility into his 40s.

Here at the House of Phil, the crowds are getting restless. They can hardly wait for the coronation.

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