AUGUSTA — On Tuesday afternoon, days before the Masters’ heavy lifting, Phil Mickelson found himself at one of the little corners of Augusta National that always will belong to him.
His practice-round tee shot on the par-5 13th had put him just at the elbow where the fairway takes a hard left turn. After hitting a very useful shot to the green, Mickelson began playing with the crowd.
He stepped just a few yards to his right, into the pines, crunching about in the pinestraw, and searched for a memory. He stopped, looked around at his big gallery as if to say, “It was about here, right?” They remembered. Yes, there. The very spot from where Mickelson’s 2010 Masters title teetered on the knife’s edge between bold and foolhardy.
He dropped a ball. Like Edison about to re-create the first light-bulb glimmer, Mickelson was going to hit that famous shot again. His people were lapping it up.
Mickelson was 39 when he steered that ball between a 6-foot gap in the trees to four feet, instead of safely laying up. Alas, crossing over into one’s 40s often means taking fewer chances. Grinning sheepishly, Mickelson rethought, picked up the ball, and walked on, leaving a wake of disappointment.
Mickelson is not here to perform his greatest hits or take nostalgic walks around Amen Corner or maybe risk mangling a wrist on a tree root.
Rather, he is here at the age of 41 as a serious applicant for a fourth green jacket.
The golf media has its focus elsewhere. The headline in one national magazine proclaims that professional golf is a “Two Man Game.” Those two men — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy — are portrayed on the cover of another magazine as boxers on a faux fight card, as if they were the main event and the rest of the world was but the undercard.
“I’m cool with it,” Mickelson said of not sitting at the hip kids’ table this week. “I don’t have a problem with it. I am where I am and I’m fine with it.”
To dismiss Mickelson as a secondary character is likely a mistake. Although, there could be money to be made in the slight — he is going off at 11-to-1 to win this week according to the Bovada online odds, compared to Woods at 4-to-1 and McIlroy at 5-to-1.
Forget Phil at your own peril. It being 2012, this is his year, literally. He has won all three of his Masters during even-numbered years — 2004, ’06, ’10. His average finish during even years is third and is only 12th during the odd years.
There are advantages beyond dubious numerology he brings to the Masters this week.
While he is not riding the same thermals as Woods, who won two weeks ago, Mickelson has used the past couple of weeks to build a foundation for this one. He finished 24th at the same Bay Hill that Woods won, then climbed to fourth last week at Houston.
“I eliminated a lot of those loose shots [from Bay Hill] last week and steadily got better,” Mickelson said. “I feel like I’m playing well, and I’m looking forward to this week.”
He is, after all, the same guy who buried Woods the last time they were paired together on a Sunday — the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Mickelson shot 64 that last day and won. Woods shot 75, and finished tied for 15th.
With that one, his 40th career PGA Tour title, Mickelson has won at least once every year for the past nine years, the longest active streak.
There is a constancy that Mickelson brings to the tee that often gets overlooked whenever the world gets distracted by all the other shiny things. Woods, of course, has been caught in a public two-year spin cycle of change. Meanwhile, this year marks the 20th that Mickelson has paired with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay in a business where such relationships are normally as temporary as a henna tattoo.
Mickelson also has managed to keep an emotional commitment to the game, even as he has gotten old enough and successful enough not to give one whit about his next swing. Between supporting his wife and mother through their cancer battles and his own issues with psoriatic arthritis, he has had ample reasons to allow his game to rust.
Yet, as he said Tuesday, he still has powerful motivation to play well here: “I love competing on great courses like Augusta. I get excited when this tournament comes around. I get excited for the first week of April.”
Likewise when he talks about entering the World Golf Hall of Fame next month, there is no hint of a man ready to let his past do all his talking for him. He won’t know quite how to react at the ceremony.
“I like the Hall of Fame as an opportunity to reflect on your career,” he said, “and I’m still at the stage where I’m looking forward at my career. I’m looking ahead to other opportunities and other tournaments.”
It is also clear that he arrived here this week in a blissful state of mind. No matter what pressures may be facing an Irish kid trying to win his first Masters or a fallen great trying to reclaim his status and image, Mickelson took on the air of a man who has been playing with house money.
Winning that first Masters, that first major, in 2004 changed everything for him.
“When I won in 2004, it was no longer pressure I felt; it was excitement,” he said.
“Every time this week came around, I was excited to get my game geared up for this event to try to win it again, to add another green jacket in the closet and try to build off that first win. I already knew that I was going to be a part of this tournament every year, knew that every Tuesday of the Masters, I had dinner plans [the champions’ dinner].”
Never underestimate a man playing for love.
Should he win his fourth Masters this week, Mickelson would become one of only three quadruple champions. Arnold Palmer. And that Woods fellow, to whom he has been so mercilessly compared.
Asked what joining such company would mean, Mickelson merely said, “A lot.”
Could he expound on that a little, the questioner pled.
Mickelson smiled. He was not in the interview room to entertain or to clutter up his with mind with unneeded burdens.
Slowly he mouthed the words: “It. ... would ... mean ... an ... awful ... lot.” And then moved on, leaving the room wanting more.