AUGUSTA, Ga. – Is there a golfer who has experienced more ups and downs in a single career than Phil Mickelson? Let’s go to the video: One year, he’s winning the Masters, and another he’s ripping driver on the 72nd hole into a hospitality tent. The man owns three green jackets … and six runners-up finishes at the U.S. Open.
Feast, meet famine.
His opening 1-under 71 on Thursday had a little bit of everything. A great start, some staggering giveaways in the middle of his round, and a terrific finishing kick. In the end, any score in red numbers on Thursday at Augusta National was worthy of satisfaction. Mickelson was one of only 11 players who finished the day below par.
Mickelson got off to a dream start, making eagle on the par-5 second (holing his third shot from 14 yards), and adding birdie at the usually arduous fourth. Three under through four. And then he started to give back what he’d banked early on.
25th Masters for Mickelson
He three-putted the par-4 fifth; failed to get up and down from a front bunker after a poor tee shot at the par-3 sixth; and needed three more putts (from 83 feet) from high above the cup at 10. When he drove it into the trees on the left side of the 11th, it led to another bogey, and suddenly, he was over par for the round.
Playing in his 91st career round at Augusta National in this, his 25th Masters, Mickelson considered a single par to be the turnaround spark in his round. There was chaos going on at the 12th, which was playing 160 yards, with winds swirling every which way. So it became a challenge to guess just right and pull the correct club, and Mickelson did, pleased when his tee shot finished on the green, even if his ball was some 35 feet from the flag.
“When it’s calm,” he said, “you’re thinking 2. But on day like today, you’re praying for par. I’m sure there were a lot of big numbers out there.”
There were, and fortunately, he didn’t own one of them. Mickelson then closed strongly, making 4 at the 13th (up and down from a back bunker) and adding one last birdie at the par-3 16th, stuffing his tee shot to 3 feet.
Mickelson welcomes Masters challenge
It all added up to 71, and a very good start for a man who has more experience on this golf course than many. Mickelson once despised playing in conditions such as those he encountered on Thursday; now he welcomes them.
“I love it around here especially,” he said, “because the wind is going to magnify your misses and a lot of guys who aren’t familiar with this course, or where you can go to on certain holes for certain pins, will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers. … I might miss it big, but I’ll miss it in the right spot and I’ll have a good chance to salvage par.”
Mickelson’s last Masters victory came in 2010. He has been reminded several times this week that he happens to be 46 now, the same age as was Jack Nicklaus when Nicklaus landed his sixth and final green jacket in 1986.
“I would say that Phil has a lot better chance of winning this year than I did when I was 46,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus: Lefty has room for improvement
“I don’t think he’s probably playing his best golf right now, but sometimes that changes very quickly. Age is not an issue to him. He’s a big guy, and he’s a long guy, and he’s got a great short game.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find him in contention.”
As for Mickelson, he doesn’t give a whole lot of thought about being 46 and its relation to his ability to win trophies, even if his last champion’s speech came in July of 2013 (Open Championship at Muirfield).
“You look at guys like Bernhard Langer (now 59), who was in the second-to-last group last year,” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel as though age is as big a factor as it was decades ago. I feel like the generation that are playing the game now are going to have elongated careers due to fitness.”
And experience pays nicely, too. On Thursday, when Augusta National played very close to its most difficult, it was a valuable asset to possess.