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
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
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
“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