Three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson flying under the radar
By Dan O'Neill
Some prominent people will be missing when Augusta National Golf Club comes into focus this week.
Arnold Palmer announced last month he will not hit a ceremonial tee shot Thursday morning, as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Palmer, 86, still plans to be at the tournament and attend the Champions Dinner.
Meanwhile, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will press on, striking ceremonial first shots without "The King." Player is dedicating his swing to his old adversary and friend.
"I have a philosophy in life that everything will pass," Player told the Golf Channel. "Legacies are forgotten, and understandably so. I look at Arnold and had a great friendship with him. I love him as a friend and am going to dedicate my shot to Arnold."
Tiger Woods also will not be teeing it up. Woods was the subject of lots of rumor and innuendo as the tournament approached. Word circulated that the 14-time major champion would be a surprise entry in the field come Thursday. That proved to be as far-fetched as it seemed.
Woods has been on the disabled list since two micrdisectomy operations on his back in 18 months. After the second procedure in September, he did not promote a timeline for a return, although he suggested "early 2016" was in play.
Perhaps that indicator fueled recent speculation that the Masters, a championship he has won four times, would be the launching point. Perhaps the fact Woods has several big dollar sponsors generates momentum for these reports to surface from time to time. But Woods put an end to the spin, or scuttlebutt or wishful thinking late last week.
He's not coming back this week, wouldn't be prudent.
"After assessing the present condition of my back, and consulting with my medical team, I've decided it's prudent to miss this year's Masters," Woods said on his website. "I've been hitting balls and training daily, but I'm not physically ready. I've said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what's best for my long-term health and career.
"Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn't be the right decision. I'm absolutely making progress, and I'm really happy with how far I've come, but I still have no timetable to return to competitive golf."
So the Masters will be without Palmer and Woods, rather profound. It also is without Phil Mickelson, or so it seems. To be clear, Mickelson will, in fact, put the ball in the air Thursday. He will compete for the 24th time at Augusta National, where he has won three times, where he has been third or better nine times, where he tied for second as recently as last April.
Make no mistake, with five majors and 42 PGA Tour wins, Phil Mickelson will be there. You just wouldn't necessarily know it from a perception standpoint. When "Lefty" drives the 330 yards down Magnolia Lane this week, he won't show up on the radar.
Mickelson 101 used to be required reading in the days leading up to this event. He would be with Woods atop every serious "watch list." But this week that list is entirely dominated by the 20-somethings. Reigning Masters champ Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler ... those are the fantasy picks.
As for lefthanders, Gerry Lester "Bubba" Watson Jr. is getting the most attention. He has added a green sports coat to his wardrobe in two of his last four trips to the Masters.
Mickelson comes to the Land of Egg Salad Sandwiches as a nostalgic afterthought. He has not won a golf tournament since a stunning victory in the 2013 British Open. He has dropped to No. 18 in the world rankings, a few notches below Sergio Garcia, who has never won a major.
In terms of pre-tournament buzz, "Lefty" has never been more left out. And where Augusta is concerned, that might make him especially relevant. His scoring average of 69.71 is currently tops on the PGA Tour, and his birdie average (4.46) is eighth – not exactly signs that he is struggling.
He shot four rounds under par and tied for 13th Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, a week he uses to prepare for this week.
"The style of play here is totally different than Augusta.," Mickelson said during a news conference after shooting a 69 Sunday in Humble, Tex. "To play this course effectively, you've got to hit a lot of 3-woods, play more defensive. At Augusta, though, you have to step on the driver, and so I hit a lot more drivers here this week than I would if I were really focused on trying to win this week.
"... I'm more focused about hitting shots for next week ... but I needed to get that work in on a competitive environment. I love playing the week before because you get competitive, but I didn't make -- I didn't make the smartest play. My course management for this course isn't going to be great. The shots that I was playing this week are going to set up a lot better next week."
That's the thing about Augusta, it's a bicycle. Those who learn how to ride it never forget. Mickelson has a Masters career average round of 71.09, second only to Woods among those with 75 to 99 rounds, almost a shot better than Nicklaus' average over 163 rounds.
Mickelson has carded 25 birdies in a single Masters Tournament; only Spieth (28) has had more. Mickelson has 11 top-5 finishes; only Nicklaus (15) has more.
Mickelson is no longer a cover story for his sport. At age 45, the days of wine and roses, and multiple wins, are dwindling. But Nicklaus turned back the yellow and green pages at Augusta to win at age 46. When he showed up in Georgia that week, the "Golden Bear" wasn't even on the radar.
Draw your own conclusions.
This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.