Mickelson's magic to cast spell on rivals
Augusta National is breathtaking in its beauty.
For one week each year during The Masters, it is golf's Garden of Eden, a place where blazing colour and white noise meld with raw passion to produce one of the most enthralling events in sport.
Yet the greatest glory of this place lies not in aesthetics, but in the opportunity Augusta gives to swashbuckling, old-fashioned adventurers like Phil Mickelson to achieve legendary status.
If it wasn't for The Masters and the confidence Mickelson acquired from his breakthrough victory at Augusta in 2004, this hugely talented 40-year-old might still labour under dispiriting title 'Greatest Player Never to Win a Major.'
Sure, the 2005 US PGA Championship at Baltusrol is among Mickelson's four Majors ... but the Californian's dreams were always going to be fulfilled at The Masters, where his trademark aggression is more of an asset than a crippling liability.
Mickelson is one of those very rare individuals both brave and talented enough to play this game the way it should be, with flair and inhibition, and still make it pay at the highest level.
Yes, brave enough!
At times, Mickelson's abandon has exposed him to ridicule. Not least at the climax to the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, where he squandered a glorious chance of victory on 18 after his final drive bounced off the roof of a hospitality tent into a rubbish bin and then he failed with an improbable bid to smash a long iron on to the green.
Who can forget the look of utter disdain frozen on Tiger's face as Mickelson carved his tee shot into the trees left of 18 at Oakland Hills, effectively gifting a precious Ryder Cup point to Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie.
Though never comfortable playing on alien turf at the British Open and stifled by the straightjacket conditions encountered at the US Open and tougher US PGA tracks, Mickelson is free to vent his talent at Augusta.
"As difficult and challenging as the course is, when I go through the gates at Augusta, I don't feel I have to play perfect golf," says Mickelson. "I don't have to drive it perfect. I can go in the trees and hit shots under trees and up by the green somewhere and salvage par with my short game." The result is raw excitement.
This was seen to glorious effect in last year's Masters. After riding his luck, bouncing wayward shots off wood and flesh to safety at holes eight, nine, 10 and 11 on Sunday, Mickelson brought the world to its feet with that swashbuckling six-iron which flew 200-plus yards out of the pines to within four feet at 13.
To Mickelson, there was no other option. "It was an absolute go. In this day and age when you are playing against the best in the world, you've got to hit shots and pull it off," he explains.
"The guy that comes out and plays conservative and doesn't take any risk and lets the whole field give it to him, he's not going to win much. You've got to go out and be aggressive and hope you pull the shots off and try to win rather than let somebody lose."
There are many in this week's field who share Mickelson's sense of adventure -- like fellow left-hander Bubba Watson, Alvaro Quiros and America's latest fall guy at the Majors, Dustin Johnson.
None of them match Mickelson's short game. As Quiros replied when asked if, someday soon, he expected to follow Seve Ballesteros' footsteps and win The Masters: "Seve had the hands of an artist while I have the hands of a bricklayer." Quiros hopes eventually to acquire a touch pure enough to win at Augusta, but he wasn't born with the gift of a Ballesteros or a Mickelson.
Or Padraig Harrington, who is Ireland's best prospect of a first Green Jacket this week, despite 32 months of under-achievement since embarking on an ill-fated quest for more length following his third Major victory in 2008.
Harrington's remodelled swing is looking more tidy. He's unpredictable off the tee, but not to the same wild extent as Tiger Woods. Frankly, Woods is unlikely to emulate last year's fourth place at Augusta, never mind win. Struggling to make six to 10-foot putts, which are so crucial at Augusta, Tiger's been shorn of the powers of recovery which used underpin his supreme confidence at The Masters.
Elsewhere, Rory McIlroy's unworldly talent will one day yield a Green Jacket and Graeme McDowell is crafty and confident enough to mould his US Open-winning golf game to the peculiar demands of Augusta.
McDowell, Open-winner Louis Oosthuizen and US PGA title-holder Martin Kaymer all are gifted players, but in a total of eight appearances at The Masters by this formidable European Tour trio, only once has one of them (McDowell in 2009) made the cut.
Yet the know-how Harrington has accumulated in 11 Masters and the self-belief drawn from those three Major wins, puts the Dubliner ahead of Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Luke Donald among those capable of clinching a first-ever Euro-Slam.