Lefty has history and more on his side

BY foxsports • April 6, 2011

Since that momentous triumph in 1997, Tiger Woods has been the perennial favorite coming into the Masters. But is Augusta now Phil’s place?

It’s a pertinent question given that Las Vegas has, for the first time in 13 years, failed to install Woods as the betting favorite leading into the year’s first major. Phil Mickelson, for the first time at the event the highest-ranked American in the world at No. 3, carries the shortest odds, and it is obvious given the deference being paid to him by his peers that he’s got their vote, too.

“It seems like everybody’s got Phil in a green jacket on Sunday evening, and there’s not much reason to turn up at this point,” reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said with a wry smile on Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him blow the field away like he did over the weekend in Houston.”

Two of Woods’ former coaches, Butch Harmon — who’s now in Mickelson’s camp — and Hank Haney, have endorsed Lefty as the man to beat, as has world No. 1 Martin Kaymer.

“I think Phil,” he said when asked to choose between Mickelson and Woods.

“That’s where my money would be,” former Masters champion Sandy Lyle added.

Lee Westwood played alongside Mickelson in the third round at the Shell Houston Open, when the left-hander tied the course record with a 63, and was hugely impressed.

“He played as good as I’ve seen him play, ever,” the former world No. 1 said.

The outspoken Ian Poulter went so far as to say that there was no way Woods, whose worst finish here in the past six years was a tie for sixth, could finish in the top five.

“Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods responded, sarcastically.

But recent history is on Lefty’s side, too. Since 2004, when he broke through with his first major here, Mickelson’s got three green jackets. Woods in that time has only one. He leads Mickelson by only one over their careers.

It was obvious watching the relaxed Mickelson deftly handle his pre-tournament news conference on Tuesday that the balance of power has changed. He’s feeling good, and not just because he blew away the field over the weekend in Houston.

Augusta brings out the best in him.

“It’s certainly my favorite week of the year,” he said. “When I drive down Magnolia Lane, I get re-energized with the game of golf.

“You know, I’ve played since I was a year and a half (old); I’m 40, so 38 and a half years I’m playing this game. I could easily forget week-in, week-out playing the PGA Tour, how lucky I am to play this game. When I come back to Augusta National, I just remember how much I loved it as a kid, dreamt of playing the Tour, dreamt of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament.”

Mickelson has said several times this year that he felt he was on the cusp of putting his game together, but he wasn’t been able to do it consistently until last week. He played flawlessly, shooting 16 under on the weekend to win by three shots.

“To be able to have that type of performance heading into here feels very good,” he said. “It was a big confidence booster. Reminds me a lot of 2006 when I was able to put it together the week before and carry the momentum through.”

Mickelson won his second Masters in ‘06 a week after obliterating the field in the now-defunct Atlanta Tour stop. That year he controversially played with two drivers — one for accuracy and one for distance — and he said he’s going to employ the same strategy again this week.

True to his go-for-broke style, Mickelson also revealed that he’d be swinging for the fences.

“This week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest,” he said. “I’ve been working out for it. I saw a back specialist last night just to make sure that my back hangs in there … (because) it’s a big advantage if you can move it out there.”

He’ll take risks off the tee in good part because he knows how to recover around the National.

“(Phil) didn’t hit it very good for his standard on Sunday (last year) but he missed the ball in absolutely every single perfect place for those pins, and that’s experience,” Woods said.

Experience and a stellar short game. And then there’s another dynamic between Woods and Mickelson that’s shifted.

Since that record-breaking 1997 Masters, Woods always has been ranked above his biggest rival. Last year as Woods struggled in the wake of a tabloid sex scandal, Mickelson had numerous opportunities to overtake him but constantly fell short, prompting some to wonder whether he’ll ever have Tiger’s number.

After winning Houston, he’s finally move ahead, and maybe out of the Woods’ shadow. Mickelson wasn’t reading too much into it all — at least publicly — on Tuesday.

“It would really mean a lot if he was (number) one at the time when I passed him. That would be really cool,” he said. “But he and I both have some work to do on our games as well as our performances in these tournaments to move back up there. Then it would mean a lot.”

For Woods, it goes without saying that this is a tournament with enormous implications. Perhaps the most important four rounds for him since he plowed his SUV into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving night in 2009.

It marks the one-year anniversary of his return to golf after the scandal, and it’s clear he’d like nothing more than to cover the past with a fifth green jacket.

“Last year was last year and this year is this year,” he replied rather testily to a question asking him to revisit his demise.

What Woods needs more than anything is to show that he can again be Tiger Woods. And is there any better canvas for him to do that than Augusta National? I asked him if he felt ready to win.

“Mm-hmm,” he responded.

A colleague was even more probing: Have we seen the best of Tiger Woods?

“No,” Woods said.

What makes him so sure?

“Well, I believe in myself,” he responded.

What he’s going to need to do is to believe in his putter. Woods acknowledged what his caddie, Steve Williams, told me last week: that putting has been what’s held him back most at the Masters in recent years.

“Not putting well certainly has cost me a few Masters,” Woods conceded. “I felt that I had a pretty good shot on a couple of different occasions to win on the back nine and just putted poorly.”

While Woods focused on what he needed to fix, Mickelson behaved as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

On Thursday, he’ll go off in the penultimate group of the day, teeing off at 1:48 p.m. Wouldn’t he have preferred an earlier time?

“I like the latest tee time possible here,” he said. “And the reason is, about five o’clock, it seems to just calm down. It seems like any wind that might be out there just seems to subside. It seems very peaceful. And I would love nothing more than to have the last tee time every day.”

It’s hard to see him not having one on Sunday.


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