At 46, can Phil Mickelson pull a Jack Nicklaus and win the Masters?

April 8, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga.—If Phil Mickelson can somehow, some way claw back and win this grand old tournament, he won’t be the first player to do so at age 46 (looking at you, Jack), but he most certainly would be the first player to do so after dispatching his caddie to tend the flagstick for a 61-yard wedge shot. The VPM (Vintage Phil Moment) came on Friday during the second round of the 81st Masters when Mickelson laid up his second shot on the par-5 13th hole and determined that his chances of holing the ensuing shot would improve if Jim Mackay removed the stick.

And jar it Mickelson nearly did, striking a beautiful, spinning shot that landed just past the hole before sucking back to three feet. As Mickelson made his way to the green and sized up his birdie try, his wife, Amy, and three children, Evan, Sophia and Amanda looked on from beneath the grandstand by the 14th tee. Amy, who has witnessed her husband miss his share of short putts, shimmied nervously as Phil rocked back his putter and sent the ball toward the hole. When it caught the left edge of the cup and barely dropped for a birdie 4, Amy let out a whoop and high-fived a gallery guard.

This is what it’s like to watch Mickelson play golf, especially on this course where thrills and spills lurk around every immaculately manicured corner. Mickelson’s Friday outing was no exception. After birdieing four of the first 10 holes, the three-time Masters winner climbed to three under for the tournament and within a shot of the lead. He appeared to be primed for a back-nine charge, but after two perfect shots on the difficult 11th left him 50 feet right of the hole, Mickelson banged his birdie try 18 feet by its mark and nearly into the pond guarding the left side of the green. “Terrible,” he said later.

On the tee at the par-3 12th, with wind whipping through the pines, Mickelson stood behind his ball and waited for the gusts to settle. And waited. And waited. Ten seconds … 15 seconds … maybe 30 seconds passed. Thousands watched in silence. At long last, Mickelson flew his tee shot onto the right side of the green, 23 feet from the hole. Routine par.

Then came the birdie at 13, followed by a three-putt bogey at 14. At the par-5 15th, which has been giving the players fits over the first two days, Mickelson putted his third shot from behind the green. His ball ran up the slope but out of steam, coming up short of the putting surface. From there, facing a 20-footer down a wickedly slick slope, he drained the putt to stay at two under. But the scrappy par did little to embolden him. Mickelson closed bogey-bogey-par to knock him back to even for the week, four behind a quartet of leaders that includes Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.

“Man, I fought hard today,” Mickelson said. “I’m in a good spot heading into the weekend, just feel I should be a few more ahead.”

Or a few more behind.

It’s hard to know with Mickelson.

He hit just eight fairways and 10 greens in the second round but blamed his up-and-down play on his putting, or more specifically the gusty conditions.

“The wind is having more of an effect than the break is,” he said. “Hopefully with calm conditions I’ll get that thing dialed in tomorrow because I’ve been putting really well. And if I can have a good putting weekend I’m going to have a good chance.”

If he is to slip on his fourth green jacket, Mickelson will need to outplay an imposing roster of players, including his third-round playing partner, Jordan Spieth.

On Friday evening, after two long, bruising days, Mickelson looked more than ready to repair home with his family. As he spoke to the press near Augusta’s famed old oak, his eyes appeared glassy and his face wind-whipped.

“I’m so tired,” he said. “I need to go rest up.”

Wise move, Phil. There’s still much work to be done.