Mickelson says Augusta National "frees" him up

Phil Mickelson tees off during a practice round at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – When Phil Mickelson got to the sixth green Tuesday during a Masters practice round, a chirpy man in the gallery got his attention.

“He was mouthing off, saying I couldn’t get it up and down,” Mickelson said, smiling.

So they made a bet. One dollar.

Mickelson said he chip shot wasn’t that hard, but he didn’t get the ball closer than 7 feet from the hole. Then he missed the putt and reached into his pocket.

“I had to pay him,” he said. “That’s what happens when you lose.”

Mickelson was in playful form Tuesday during his pre-Masters news conference. His inner ham is at its best in front of big national media audiences, and that was the case again.

Clearly the $1 loss was no big deal considering the apparent windfall he and practice-round partner Rickie Fowler pulled in. Mickelson’s practice rounds sometimes aren’t so much about practicing as they are, in his words, about “mentoring or wagering.”

This time he rode a Fowler hot streak.

“Rickie went on a tear,” Mickelson happily reported.

Eagle at 13. Birdies at Nos. 15, 17 and 18. A back-nine score of 30. Cha-ching.

“It was fun having him as a partner,” Mickelson understated. “It’s fun to watch. Through osmosis it helps your game as well.”

And Mickelson’s game could use a little boost. Yes, he has won three Masters among his five major championship victories. But he hasn’t had a PGA Tour top-10 finish since August and says he’s “nervous” as a result of not having contended recently because this tournament matters the most to him.

Physical problems have been a part of it. He withdrew during the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago with a pulled side muscle, but he says he’s 100 percent physically now after tying for 12th Sunday at the Shell Houston Open.

He felt even better wheeling into Augusta National, a place where he has arrived in substandard form but then fared well. The golf courses suits his aggressive game and short-game skill. And he loves it back, calling the Masters the “best week of the year if you’re a golfer.”

So let’s go down that little lane under the canopy of trees and head toward the white clubhouse and get inside Mickelson’s head.

“It’s a magical place,” he said. “I drive down Magnolia Lane and realize I don’t have to play perfect. You can recover here. You can salvage pars if you hit bad shots. And if I do hit good shots, I can make birdies. ... So I feel looser playing here. It frees me up.”

Other Mickelson nuggets:

• He said the Masters feels “weird” without rival Tiger Woods (recovering from back surgery) here. He praised Woods for influencing the rise of golf prize money and said winning is more “special” when Woods is in the field.

• Those teeing off late at the Masters have a “distinct advantage” because wind dies down after 5 p.m., Mickelson said. Hence, it’s doubly important to be in the final groups on the weekend.

• Mickelson said he hasn’t had a single shot between 90 and 130 yards in his last six Masters. That allows him freedom with bag configuration. He has won here with two drivers and has taken out his sand and gap wedges.

“It allows me two free clubs,” he said.

A gap wedge will be one of them this week. A gap or sand wedge will likely be the last.

“I’m not playing with 13 clubs, but I don’t know what the 14th is yet,” he said, smiling.

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