Augusta — A third of the 75th Masters had been played, and the champion of the 74th Masters (and also the 70th, and the 68th) found himself in some danger of not being around for what he would call “my favorite two days of the year.” Phil Mickelson was even par after 24 holes and headed the wrong way.
He’d bogeyed No. 5. He’d bogeyed No. 6. Forget that he’d entered this event as its prohibitive favorite. At issue just past noon Friday was whether he’d make the cut.
Saturday and Sunday at the Masters without Phil Mickelson? It’d be like Phil Mickelson without pine straw.
A Mickelson 6-iron from the pine straw on No. 13 spawned last year’s famous victory, and similar escapes on Nos. 7 and 8 Friday led to the birdies that ensured his continuing presence this weekend. Nothing much happened the rest of his round — he parred the final seven holes — but he’d done what he needed to do without nearly accomplishing all he might have.
Said Mickelson: “I left way too many shots out there.”
He finished the first half of the tournament 2-under. He’s not exactly stepping on the leaders’ heels, but he’s still stepping. That’s a good thing for everyone involved: For all the distinguished golfers who have won this event, none has been more beloved by the locals.
Mickelson was the people’s champ even before he became a Masters champ. He said the right things, smiled in the right places and played the sort of hell-for-leather golf galleries love.And he clearly loves folks back. He makes eye contact with those outside the ropes and acknowledges their shouts of support. (FYI, nobody ever says, “Go, Lefty!” It’s always, “Go, Phil!”)
He lived for this tournament — “Some of the best patrons in golf,” he said Friday — and when finally he won it in 2004 his was a victory not just applauded but savored. He has since won twice more, and last year’s title was a case of the right man winning the right tournament at exactly the right moment.
Beginning under the cloud of Tiger Woods’ marital misconduct, the 2010 Masters ended with Mickelson embracing his wife Amy, who had been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The cover of the Augusta Chronicle’s 2011 Masters preview offered a photo of Mickelson from that famous day and the headline: “Family Champ.”
Amy Mickelson, wearing a blue dress, followed her husband on his round Friday. “It’s fun having her out here,” Mickelson said. “We’re in such a better place. You can tell she’s doing so much better. We’re really, really happy.”
Apart from his latest pine-straw pilgrimages, Mickelson’s round was rather staid. He drove the ball long and mostly straight, but his short game took a hike. He counted six makeable putts that went unmade. In Thursday’s Round 1 he’d scored better than he played; on Friday he played better than he scored. But that’s OK. He gets to play twice more this weekend.
Leaving the scorer’s shack — after first striking the grace notes of presenting his glove to a little girl wearing a pink Fight Breast Cancer cap and thanking an Augusta National member for his gift of a book on golf history — Mickelson met the print media with a smile. He spoke of Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old eight strokes ahead of him, and said: “There’s a lot of golf left in this tournament, and I’m going to be making a run at him and the other guys ahead of me.”
A bit later, someone asked what gave him the confidence he could author such a surge. Here the reigning champ paused for effect. Finally Phil Mickelson said: “Three green jackets?”
By Mark Bradley