Inside Phil Mickelson-Jordan Spieth’s electric Masters Sunday pairing
AUGUSTA, Ga. — As Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth ascended the 18th fairway on Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, the 54-hole leaders — Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm — were just beginning their back nine on the adjacent 10th hole. This convergence of Masters leaders and fan favorites made for one of the largest swarms of patrons you will ever see in this area of the course. Forget about moving freely, you could barely breathe freely, with on-lookers packed shoulder to shoulder, many eight or 10 deep, bobbing and weaving and straining for a peek at Spieth and Mickelson as they closed out their fourth rounds in this 87th Masters.
When Spieth and Mickelson began their rounds roughly four hours earlier, no one could have predicted this scene around the home hole. Spieth had begun the round one under for the tournament, 10 back of Koepka’s lead. Mickelson’s hole was just as deep. “Anything” can happen on Masters Sunday — well, yeah, but not 10-shot comebacks.
And yet the towering leaderboard that faces the 18th green told an unlikely story:
All of the players’ scores were in red, signifying they were under par. Spieth had caught Koepka and was only two back of Rahm; Mickelson was one was back of Koepka and three back of Rahm. Spieth’s charge had been powered by nine birdies, including six in his previous 10 holes; Mickelson’s had been fueled by seven birdies, including four in his last six holes.
On 18, Spieth was tapped out of magic — he snapped his tee shot into the trees and made bogey to drop back to seven under — but Mickelson had one more rabbit. From 169 yards out, he stuck his approach to 11 feet then poured in his eighth birdie of the day, raising his putter skyward a couple of feet before the ball vanished.
If the Augusta faithful resented Mickelson’s defection roughly 10 months ago to LIV Golf, in this moment you would not have known it. The crowd roared — the kind of throaty, echoing roar that gives you chills. Mickelson beamed and pumped his fist three times. He celebrated with his caddie and brother, Tim. As Phil walked toward the back of the green, he flashed his trademark sign of gratitude — a thumbs-up — in every direction.
“It became a really exciting group,” Spieth said after the round. “It felt very, very like eight, nine, 10 years ago.”
In retrospect, we should have known that Phil and Jordan — with all due respect to Jon and Brooks — would be the pairing to follow on Sunday. Mickelson has three green coats and more course knowledge than half the members. He’s also been talking a big game about his game. Mickelson rarely lacks for bullishness, but he was especially confident this week. After his second-round 69 on Friday, he woofed: “I’m close to going on a tear. Even though the scores haven’t shown it, like I’m hitting so many good shots, pretty soon I’m going to have a really low one. When that happens and it clicks, then the game feels easy again.”
Spieth, also in possession of a green jacket and with Augusta wisdom beyond his 29 years, opened with two respectable rounds — 69-70 — before stumbling his way, in the wind and rain, to a third-round 76. It was hard to tell how much of that score was due to the conditions versus fading form. “I made a tremendous amount of mental mistakes,” Spieth said of his first three rounds. “To be this close now, it’s nice, but it also almost frustrates me more because I made some mistakes I don’t normally make out here, and it was more decision errors than anything else.”
In the fourth round came correction.
Off they went at 12:49 p.m. local time, two of the most artistic players the game has ever seen, ready to wield their clubs like paint brushes. Spieth struck first, nearly spinning back his approach from the left rough on the par-4 1st into the hole. Tap-in birdie. On the next hole, a gettable downhill par-5, came two more birdies, one for each player. The long, dogleg-left par-5 5th, historically the hardest hole on the course, was also of little challenge to Spieth. He stuck his approach to 10 feet and made the birdie try.
On the next tee, at the par-3 6th, it was Mickelson’s turn. Swing…stare…club twirl. He didn’t hole it, but it was close (3 feet). Later, Mickelson explained the shot in vintage Mickelson form: “I tried to hit what I call a flattening the apex of an 8-iron so it flies in flat.”
And on it went.
Spieth turned in 33, Mickelson in 34.
Mickelson, who hasn’t won since the PGA Championship in May 2021 and has been woeful in his 10 LIV starts over two seasons, credited many reasons for his excellent play this week. More practice. Improved diet and fitness. “Additives” in his coffee. After his round Sunday, Mickelson also tipped his cap to his brother-caddie, Tim. “When my focus was kind of waning,” Phil said, “he would tell me some stories, tell me some dad jokes and just kind of got me refocused and more present.”
For his part, Spieth was exhausted coming into Masters Week. Under the PGA Tour’s new elevated schedule, Spieth said he has played too much golf, with eight starts in the last 10 weeks. He said he was “mentally fatigued” and lacking patience, which contributed to his poor decision-making in the first three rounds. “I just feel I got a little bit lazy in picking targets,” he said. “I probably only had a target 50 percent of the shots this week, and I like to have them 100 percent of the time. I kind of was trying to remind myself, but there was a few swings Thursday and Friday where I could have really taken it quite a bit deeper and left a few out there.”
But on Sunday, the focus came back. And with it, roars.
“Once we both started to really get it going around 10, 11, 12, 13, it started to pick up in our group. It was really cool. Obviously being with Phil, who’s won it a few times, you get some pretty cool ovations, and I know I’ve had some really good ones myself.”
Cumulatively, Spieth and Mickelson played holes 10-15 in six under, both players buoyed by the swelling galleries. “You feel like everyone’s trying to will the ball in for you,” Spieth said. “It’s a really cool feeling you don’t get anywhere else but here.”
At 17, another gem from Mickelson, this time with a 7-iron to kick-in range. “Just kind of held it a little bit in that left-to-right wind and let it fall to the right and it almost went in,” he said.
Next came Mickelson’s eighth birdie of the round, at 18, and an embrace from fans that he hadn’t felt since Kiawah. As Mickelson paced off the back of the green, his smile seemed to reach to Amen Corner. As he walked down the roped-off channel that extends from the back of the 18th green to the scoring cabin — a distance of about 100 yards — patrons flanked either side of him, extending their hands in hopes of making contact with the Augusta legend. Mickelson hadn’t just won his fourth green jacket, but damn it if didn’t feel like it.
Waiting for Mickelson at the end of the line was Steve Loy, his former coach at Arizona State and longtime agent, who has had to manage much of the fallout from Mickelson’s incendiary remarks about Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour, and, more generally, Mickelson’s decision to contract with LIV Golf. As the old friends embraced, tears streamed down Loy’s face.
Mickelson disappeared into the clubhouse to sign his scorecard. When he emerged about 10 minutes later to speak briefly with reporters, he was arm in arm with Loy and Mickelson’s wife, Amy, who was clad in black save for white rain boots and Masters-green sunglasses.
“He’s very reluctant to make too many comments,” said a green-coated Augusta National media official.
But Mickelson did make some.
“Today is hopefully a stepping stone to really kick start the rest of the year and continue some great play because I have a unique opportunity,” he said. “At 52, no physical injuries, no physical problems, being able to swing a club the way I want to, to do things in the game that not many people have had a chance to do later in life.”
When Mickelson stepped down from the mic, Amy was waiting for him. They clenched hands and walked up a set of stairs that leads to a walkway next to the clubhouse. Still hand in hand, they strolled the length of the path and disappeared around a corner. Next stop: the other side of the world. LIV Golf’s next event kicks off April 21 in Adelaide, Australia.