No one seems more comfortable around Augusta National and the Masters Tournament than Phil Mickelson.
He smiles and grins and bobs his head in that “aw shucks” way of his as he walks the verdant grounds. He fist bumps young fans and autographs hats and flags. He acknowledges cheers and talks to patrons as he also answers questions from the news media with grace and ease.
The three-time Masters champion looks like he loves it all, which he does. And he unabashedly says this is his favorite week of the year.
So, it’s strange to hear him aver after playing his practice round Tuesday: “I’m a little bit nervous.”
Mickelson looked anything but that as he explained his reasons for those feelings.
“I’m not competing the week before (the Masters) as I have in the past, and I'm nervous because I haven’t been in competition since the Sunday of the Houston Open,” he said. “It will be 10 or 11 days since my last tournament round when I tee off Thursday, I guess, as opposed to the usual three, and what I’m nervous about is just those first opening five or six holes and being mentally tuned in. It’s always a challenge when you haven’t been in competition to be really mentally focused and sharp.”
It seems unlikely, however, that his nervousness will have much of a negative effect on Mickelson’s performance in what will be his 21st Masters.
For one thing, he said that his awareness of having to really focus on those first holes Thursday has prompted him to work on ways to make sure he is just that. Mostly through visualization techniques, he explained.
For another, he spent last Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Augusta National, playing Practice Rounds and devoting lots of time to hitting shots on and around the greens. Then, there is the matter of his being so comfortable on the Augusta National course and at the Tournament.
“Knowing where I can and can’t go gives me great comfort,” he said. “Off the tee, I know where I have to go to have a realistic chance to get up and down, and if I am able to get in that area, I can rely on my short game. And every hole to every pin has a spot where you can get up and down a reasonably high percentage of the time. I don’t have to hit perfect shots to make pars. There are a lot of holes where I can make mistakes off the tee and still recover with my short game. Knowing that relaxes me.
“It’s not like the U.S. Open, where if you make one little mistake it costs you because you don’t have the ability to recover. I think the recovery shot is what’s exciting about Augusta National. It’s the most exciting shot in golf. I know that one of the most exciting shots I’ve ever hit in my career is that recovery shot on 13 a few years ago. You don’t have to be perfect from the tee here, which I like.”
An abiding love of the Masters and the opportunity to compete in this Tournament and on this stage each year also seems sure to mitigate whatever anxiety might arise as a result of his competitive layoff. And Mickelson sounds like he cannot wait to get back in the mix.
“What makes the Masters so exciting is playing the back nine (on Sunday) and having an opportunity to win,” he said. “That is what is so enjoyable and exciting as a player, to feel that pressure, to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies to win a Green Jacket. Well, that is the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience.”
Truth be told, the man doesn’t sound nervous at all.