Phil Mickelson hit driver off the deck from the woods — and that was just the beginning
AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s slightly less of Phil Mickelson at the Masters this year.
There’s his physical presence, which is notably reduced; Mickelson has been cutting back calories and arrived at Augusta 25 pounds lighter.
“I stopped eating food, that was a big help,” he quipped on Thursday. Even Scottie Scheffler’s massive Champions Dinner chocolate chip cookies weren’t tempting enough to lure Mickelson to sugary mischief. In this case, less Mickelson means more discipline. Because his weight loss included some muscle loss, he’s been in the gym, too, regaining speed.
“When you rely on your body to be able to do your job, it’s a lot easier to be motivated to stay fit and get healthy and be well and so forth than if you’re not,” he said.
Mickelson is somewhat muted with his words, too; he seems eager to keep his words forgettable rather than flammable. That represents a marked contrast from a year ago, when he was absent from the Masters due to self-imposed exile or PGA Tour suspension or some combination of the two — all resulting from a particularly fiery phrase. For a man whose career has been defined by his performance at this event, that was a notable absence.
“I was skiing,” he remembered post-round. “And watching Scottie Scheffler play some great golf.”
He shied away from controversy in his post-round remarks on Thursday after opening with a one-under 71 (more on that in a moment). That was in line with his Tuesday remarks and consistent with his choice to decline a media center press conference. Instead he expressed gratitude. Where he seemed uncertain he kept his answers short and sweet. Like this: What was he thinking on the first tee?
“That I get to play Augusta National in the Masters and this is an awesome day no matter what I shoot.”
There’s no question that Mickelson’s standing is reduced in the eyes of some Masters patrons — and some of its membership, too. Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley offered another rebuke of LIV on Wednesday, a sentiment shared by some (though not, of course, all) of the green jackets. Mickelson has made himself scarce around the clubhouse and blended into the background at the Champions Dinner, according to attendees. He’s chosen cautiousness over audacity for the flavor of his return.
But away from the clubhouse? This is still the Phil Mickelson we know.
The patrons swarmed to catch a glimpse, and Mickelson wasted no time putting on a show. His sixth stroke of the day came from the pine straw right of the second fairway, from which point Mickelson selected driver — driver! — as his weapon of choice.
“I was just trying to chop a little driver, hit a low running cut by the bunkers. It caught one of those limbs and shot left,” he said by way of explanation. “But it was still a birdie.” It sure was.
At No. 8, Mickelson selected driver again, first off the tee and then off the fairway. His driver off the deck was a majestic thing, scooting up the hill and onto the green before it trickled past the pin to set up another birdie.
He even flashed a little throwback Mickelson showmanship in describing that one. “Salty,” he said with a grin, asked to describe the shot. “Yeah, really salty.”
That birdie began a run of nine holes in which Mickelson made five birdies, two bogeys, a double bogey and just a single par. One of those bogeys came at No. 14, where his ball settled besides a tree and inspired a bit of Mickelson magic when he turned a club upside-down and swung at it right-handed.
“I flipped over an 8-iron,” he said. How’d he know he’d hit the ball?
“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. 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.”
There was a double at 11 when he found the water with his approach shot. There was a bogey at 16 when he found the water off the tee.
“This is the issue I’ve been dealing with is I’ll make two swings and it costs me four shots,” he said. But he finished the day at one under par, T26, third-best among LIV pros and six shots off the lead.
There’s a catch that comes with contending: increased scrutiny. On the course, Lefty remains an eager showman. By the clubhouse? Less is more.
We’ll see more of Mickelson come Friday morning. But just how much?