Augusta, Ga. A kid no taller than a 3-iron stepped in front of his dad and leaned into the rope along the walkway between the seventh green and eighth tee. He knew exactly what he was doing. The same move worked to perfection with three other golfers earlier that day, and the kid also knew who was coming next.
“Phil,” he called out, but not too loudly. Then he smiled sweetly.
Sure enough, a golf ball came floating in his direction, and just for good measure — without breaking stride — Phil Mickelson exchanged fist bumps with three fans on the other side of the walkway. No one was left without something — a nod, a smile, just a moment of eye contact. No one in the golf business works a crowd better than Lefty.
Chants of “Phil” broke out on both sides, and Mickelson’s grin grew wider. Then he stepped onto the tee and pounded a drive way down the eighth fairway to set up his third birdie on the front nine. But his crowd-pleasing act was just beginning.
In the span of six swings and a thousand or so yards Saturday, Mickelson turned this Masters on its head.
One minute Englishman Lee Westwood was threatening to run away with the tournament, and in the next, Lefty was threatening to run him over. Mickelson rolled in an eight-footer for an eagle at No. 13, then holed his second shot at No. 14 with a 9-iron from 141 yards for another — only the third time in Masters history a golfer had made two in a row.
“I hit a good shot and thought that the ball would be close, but you obviously don’t expect for it to go in,” he said afterward. “That was pretty cool that it did.”
His drive sailed left on 15 and forced him to punch out back to the fairway. But Mickelson’s wedge from 87 yards nearly rolled into the cup, setting up a tap-in birdie. That stretch, combined with Westwood’s bogey at No. 12, set up a cat-and-mouse game that promises to get better today.
“I played about as well as I have in a long time,” Mickelson said after shooting 67, which left him at 11-under and trailing Westwood by a stroke. “This is the way I expect to play, but this is ... I haven’t played this way in a long time.”
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment.
In case you haven’t noticed, this year the Masters was billed as golf’s version of the Salem witch trials. That’s because of the sex scandal swirling around Mickelson’s biggest rival, Tiger Woods. For those who wanted to believe that how a golfer behaves off the course should have something to do with how he performs on it, Woods’ stellar play — he finished Saturday at 8-under — has been a stunning rebuke.
Yet some of those same people will point to Mickelson — nearly as popular as Woods, yet much more beloved — and argue this resurgence at Augusta National restores their faith. Unlike Tiger, he signs autographs by the dozens and is hardly shy about handing out souvenirs. He smiles all the time.
He became the game’s most sympathetic figure while enduring an 0-for-42 streak in the majors before breaking through to win the Masters in 2004. And he’s become more sympathetic still while trying to balance the demands of career and providing support to his wife and mother, both of whom have undergone treatment for breast cancer during the past year.
Amy Mickelson and the couple’s three kids are back traveling with Phil for the first time in months. They haven’t come to the course yet, choosing instead to stay back and watch him play on TV.
“It’s really fun having them here, and it takes a lot of the heartache away,” Mickelson said.
Is Mickelson the all-around good guy the galleries adore? If nothing else, the lesson of Woods’ stunning fall from grace reminds us that jumping to that conclusion is a risky leap. The sentiment among his peers runs the gamut, from close friends like Fred Couples who insist Mickelson is as genuine as he appears to a few who snicker behind his back that’s it’s all an act.
If Mickelson has spent even a minute this weekend worrying about his image, you wouldn’t know it from the way he sat in the interview room, beaming the whole while. At the moment, anyway, his attention is riveted on the leaderboard, which provides no details on how his rivals do what they do, only how many strokes it takes to get it done.