Friday 19 January 2018

Mickelson on a roll ahead of Masters defence

Phil Mickelson is hitting form at just the right time ahead of his Augusta Masters defence this week
Phil Mickelson is hitting form at just the right time ahead of his Augusta Masters defence this week

Karl McGinty

Twelve months ago, Augusta was high on emotion as Phil Mickelson and his wife Amy brought down the curtain on an unforgettable US Masters with tears of joy and a lingering embrace.

As he was helped into the Green Jacket for the third time in six years, Mickelson appeared for all the world to be the new Master of Augusta, natural successor to the fallen Tiger. That theory was just as strong this morning as a new US Masters week dawned and Mickelson marked the passing of two significant milestones, one symbolic and the other founded on hard cash.

On the back of his performance at the Shell Houston Open, where he cruised to victory by three shots with a flurry of birdies yesterday, Mickelson surged past the foundering Tiger in the world rankings for the first time since April 1997, when Woods romped to the first of his four Masters titles.

More significantly, perhaps, Mickelson (6/1) has been installed as bookies’ favourite for the first time atthe Masters. He overhauled Woods (9/1) on Saturday as a spectacular course-record 63 at the Houston Open dispelled any doubts engendered by the 40-year-old’s relatively poor start to this season.

The Mickelsons are in a “much better place now” than a year ago when Amy was deeply embroiled in her struggle with breast cancer.

Lefty himself has fought off the effects of psoriatic arthritis, which troubled him for much of last summer and contributed to nearly 12 largely fruitless months on the course following his dramatic Masters win.

That arthritic condition was a lot more debilitating than the Mickelson camp acknowledged but the best of medical care did the trick. As Amy said of last summer with trademark humour: “We always expected to grow old together, just not at 38 and 40.”

Significantly, Mickelson’s fellow Major champions never once doubted his potential for further success at Augusta National, a course that patently suits the Californian’s game. Even as Mickelson struggled to piece together four good rounds in the early part of the season, US Open champion Graeme McDowell was impressed by his 36 holes in Lefty’s company during last month’s Cadillac World Championship at Doral and a peek at him in practice at Augusta last week.

“I saw him there last Tuesday, working hard on his short game with Dave Pelz, while it looked like his game was simmering nicely at Doral,” said McDowell as he nominated Mickelson and America’s other effervescent left-hander, Bubba Watson, as his two Masters hotshots.

Padraig Harrington, meanwhile, is most impressed with the way Mickelson has convinced himself that Augusta National, which the Dubliner describes as “probably the most intimidating tournament course we play”, suits his game – especially as the Masters reaches its climax, he explains.

“You’d want to be well on top of your emotions and in control of your game coming down that stretch because that back nine on Sunday is an extreme test,” Harrington says.

“Everybody looks for an edge and Phil would swear that because he’s a left-hander, he’s got a bit of an advantage. Whether it does or it doesn’t, he has convinced himself it does. I’ve also heard Phil talking about how Augusta plays to his short game and his imagination, that if he does hit a wild shot, he can recover.”

Evidence the phenomenal 207-yard six-iron he hit off the pine needles and out of the trees to within five feet on the 13th hole last April, the defining shot of the 2010 Masters and a perfect example of how Mickelson is prepared to give free rein to his daredevil instincts at Augusta. Or the outrageous 50-foot chip he holed out for par from a tight lie in a swale to the left of the seventh green at Redstone on Saturday.

This superlative effort prompted Lee Westwood’s caddie Billy Foster to throw himself to his knees and bow in light-hearted supplication.

It is the ability to play exquisite shots like these that allows Mickelson to say: “I feel like a kid when I play Augusta. It gets me rejuvenated, energised, and just really look forward to practising hard and playing golf. There’s something very spiritual about Augusta.”

Old-fashioned

Before we get too dewy-eyed, Mickelson’s mastery is also founded on more earthy factors, like old-fashioned hard work and well-honed practice routines.

Of significance on his graduation to Major champion status at Augusta in 2004, for example, was the help Mickelson received from former NASA scientist Pelz in the run-up to his first Masters victory in devising drills and routines to help him fully exploit his short-game genius.

And if Mickelson’s decision to once again carry two drivers in his bag this week for the different shaped tee shots he needs to play at Augusta continues to raise an eyebrow or two on the range, the logic behind it is sound.

As Woods seeks consistency and trust in his remodelled swing, and until he restores faith in his putter, he's unlikely to regain the aura of invincibility which used protect him from Augusta’s more mischievous ways.

Such is the air of uncertainty surrounding Woods that the simple fact of playing a casual Sunday afternoon practice round without New Zealand caddie Steve Williams sent the rumour mill into overdrive. One suspects Woods will have the opportunity to regret ceding the upper hand at Augusta to Mickelson. The tide has turned.

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