Phil Mickelson is no longer exiled but he is ostracized. After missing the Masters last year for the first time since 1994, the three-time green jacket winner returned this week to a tournament that’s historically been his playground, both inside and outside the ropes.
It’s inside the ropes at Augusta where Phil can still get away from all that’s happened over the past 18 months. He did that while shooting a respectable one-under 71 that, in Mickelsonian fashion, was much more entertaining than the numbers on the scorecard would indicate.
Outside the ropes, everything is still uncomfortable and awkward. On Wednesday, Mickelson stood on the veranda of the Augusta National clubhouse half-hiding behind columns while subtly trying to get the attention of friends below under the big oak. He moved from column to column, timidly attempting to make connections while only partially in view. Once that was done, he settled into a table on the veranda around the corner and almost entirely out of view of the buzzing high society crowd down below at the oak and passing by the clubhouse. The surreptitious, emotionless movements stood in contrast to a story told about a prior year when Mickelson, often at a table front and center, rose on that veranda shouting down to an acquaintance to check out his belt, made with the skin of a reptile, that he was thrusting into view.
The scene on the veranda followed a pattern from the first couple days of the week. This is a major where Phil always held court regardless of his play. But, according to Rich Lerner on the Golf Channel, he declined a pre-tournament press conference, a spot where he, for decades, annually got off one-liners, ruffled feathers, and riffed to great self-amusement. At the Champions Dinner, which had been anticipated as the most uncomfortable Champions Dinner in the tournament’s history, Phil sat in near silence. Tommy Aaron told Golfweek of Phil’s performance, “I wished him good luck, but I couldn’t believe how quiet he was. Phil took a very low profile. He didn’t say a word.” Fuzzy Zoeller added, “Phil sat near the end of the table and kept to himself. He didn’t speak at all.”
This was bizarre to hear. But this is a bizarre, sad time in Phil Mickelson’s career arc. Is he chastened? Uncomfortable? Regardless, it’s a bummer to see him reduced to an extra on stages where he used to be a lead.
Mickelson’s performance had a bit more volume inside the ropes. Augusta National is maybe the best venue in men’s professional golf for getting away from it. No press or VIPs or friends and family are allowed inside the ropes. Patrons are kept at a distance. Sometimes, like down in Amen Corner, the players leave the crowds behind entirely, playing in solace. Mickelson started the round huddled in the center of the putting green, as far away from the patrons as possible, chatting with his caddie and coach. When it was time to play, the huddle broke and he ripped through the fan tunnel and onto the first tee.
Courtesy of the Masters Tournament
Out on the course, the awkwardness of the week was gone and Phil could just play. Phil’s game has been pretty uninspired and lobotomized on the LIV Tour, but Augusta National is not Royal Greens. Mickelson chatted up Tom Hoge, the two undoubtedly talking about legendary parlay wins and futures to consider. The round seemed to come alive at the eighth hole, where he ripped a drive and then hit driver off the deck 287 yards up the hill to the back of the green. That led to a birdie, which he backed up with another at the ninth and that trademark below-the-belt fist pump toward the turf.
But for Phil, a round coming “alive” does not always indicate a low score. He did not make a par for six straight holes on the second nine. The stretch included a second-shot so bad on 11 that it looked like it might land safely on the wrong side of the greenside pond under the leaderboard. He made double bogey. That performance was followed by two straight birdies built on perfect distance control with two different trajectories. At 12, he lofted it right over the pin at maybe the trickiest par 3 in the world. At 13, he watched Si Woo Kim barely make it onto the green and Tom Hoge flail one right out into the hazard. Then Phil stepped up and fired a low missile that comfortably landed aboard and rolled out to the back of the green.
The ride continued with a foul ball on 14 that put him up against a tree. I walked up and assumed it was dead. He arrived and bit his lower lip in anger. Phil’s brother cleared the gallery as if a pitch out significantly backwards down the 14th fairway might be coming. Then Mickelson stood over his bag, thought about the options, pulled an 8-iron, and flipped it. Standing as a righty with the club the wrong way, he stepped away from the ball and took two practice swings, working to make contact with puffed-up debris on the ground both times. Afterwards, he said it was a leaf.
“I had like a leaf that I practice swung, and I was like, all right, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit the ball,” he said. “If you ever watched Dodgeball, if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. I thought, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit a ball. I hit the leaf and did it twice, and I’m like, all right, I can do it. Let’s go do it. I swing right-handed. I think to keep your speed up it’s really important to swing the opposite direction because the acceleratory muscles of the opposite direction, or the deceleratory muscles of your normal swing. So I swing right-handed every day like a number of times and try to do that. I’m not hitting a ball. I’m just swinging a weighted club. But I got to the point where I can swing it halfway decent. But still hitting a ball with an upside down club is not something I would choose to do.”
Phil’s hitting clubs the wrong way, quoting Dodgeball, and talking about acceleratory and deceleratory muscles. Is Phil back? It should be noted, after this circus trick, that he made bogey. So the no-par streak continued all the way up to the 17th green.
While many other LIV comrades played practice rounds with PGA Tour players and engaged in the usual pre-tournament festivities, Phil mostly kept to himself and his tour. Brooks Koepka, who now shares the tournament lead, seemed to chat and giggle with Rory McIlroy for all nine holes during practice on Tuesday. This is not to say Phil is without friends at Augusta, but he’s certainly seen far from a warm homecoming this week. Getting out on the course was probably a welcome reprieve. The first round was not a full escape from the dueling tour drama. In a single group, Phil’s Hy Flyers hat and shirt were countered with garish silhouettes and a giant PGA TOUR emblazoned across the back of Si Woo Kim.
When he walked off, however, Mickelson had some real life to him with that Dodgeball citation and a “Salty. Yeah, really salty” reply when asked about his driver off the deck at the eighth hole. The round had seemed to spark a little joie de vivre, a departure from the pre-tournament days when Phil seemed diffident and almost alone. Mickelson will probably still be an outsider where he walks, even at Augusta. The rounds postpone that for a handful of hours. Today, Mickelson’s energy, his personality change after an engaging round of golf, showed all too clearly what New Phil had taken away from the golf world.