No one in golf works a crowd better than Lefty

A kid no taller than a 3-iron stepped in front of his dad and

leaned into the rope along the walkway between the seventh green

and eighth tee. He exactly knew what he was doing. The same move

worked to perfection with three other golfers earlier that day and

the kid also knew who was coming next.

“Phil,” he called out, but not too loudly. Then he smiled

sweetly.

Sure enough, a golf ball came floating in his direction and just

for good measure – without breaking stride – Phil Mickelson

exchanged fist bumps with three fans on the other side of the

walkway. No one was left without something – a nod, a smile, just a

moment of eye contact. No one in the golf business works a crowd

better than Lefty.

Chants of “Phil” broke out on both sides and Mickelson’s grin

grew wider. Then he stepped onto the tee and pounded a drive way

down the eighth fairway to set up his third birdie on the front

nine. But his crowd-pleasing act was just beginning.

In the span of six swings and a thousand or so yards Saturday,

Mickelson turned this Masters on its head.

One minute Englishman Lee Westwood was threatening to run away

with the tournament and in the next, Lefty was threatening to run

him over. Mickelson rolled in an 8-footer for an eagle at No. 13,

then holed his second shot at No. 14 with a 9-iron from 141 yards

for another – only the third time in Masters history a golfer had

made two in a row.

“I hit a good shot and thought that the ball would be close,

but you obviously don’t expect for it to go in,” he said

afterward. “That was pretty cool that it did.”

His drive sailed left on 15 and forced him to punch out back to

the fairway. But Mickelson’s wedge from 87 yards nearly rolled into

the cup, setting up a tap-in birdie. That 4-under stretch, combined

with Westwood’s bogey at No. 12, set up a cat-and-mouse game that

promises to get better come Sunday.

“I played about as well as I have in a long time,” Mickelson

said after shooting 67, which left him at 11-under and trailing

Westwood by a stroke. “This is the way I expect to play, but this

is … I haven’t played this way in a long time.”

It couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment.

In case you haven’t noticed, this year the Masters was billed as

golf’s version of the Salem witch trials. That’s because of the sex

scandal swirling around Mickelson’s biggest rival, Tiger Woods. For

those who wanted to believe that how a golfer behaves off the

course should have something to do with how he performs on it,

Woods’ stellar play – he finished Saturday at 8-under – has been a

stunning rebuke.

Yet some of those same people will point to Mickelson – nearly

as popular as Woods, yet much more beloved – and argue this

resurgence at Augusta National restores their faith. Unlike Tiger,

he signs autographs by the dozens and is hardly shy about handing

out souvenirs. He smiles all the time.

He became the game’s most sympathetic figure while enduring an

0-for-42 streak in the majors before breaking through to win the

Masters in 2004. And he’s become more sympathetic still while

trying to balance the demands of career and providing support to

his wife and mother, both of whom have undergone treatment for

breast cancer during the past year.

Amy Mickelson and the couple’s three kids are back traveling

with Phil for the first time in months. They haven’t come to the

course yet, choosing instead to stay back and watch him play on

TV.

“It’s really fun having them here, and it takes a lot of the

heartache away,” Mickelson said.

Is Mickelson the all-around good guy the galleries adore? If

nothing else, the lesson of Woods’ stunning fall from grace reminds

us that jumping to that conclusion is a risky leap. The sentiment

among his peers runs the gamut, from close friends like Fred

Couples who insist Mickelson is as genuine as he appears to a few

who snicker behind his back that’s it’s all an act.

If Mickelson has spent even a minute this weekend worrying about

his image, you wouldn’t know it from the way he sat in the

interview room, beaming the whole while. At the moment, anyway, his

attention is riveted on the leaderboard, which provides no details

on how his rivals do what they do, only how many strokes it takes

to get it done.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org