Phil Mickelson’s Masters return feels both familiar and diminished

Phil Mickelson's Masters return feels both familiar and diminished

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson had just departed the seventh green at Augusta National Golf Club and headed to the eighth tee. His game wasn’t lost, not quite. But it was lacking. Along the ropes, there was his wife, Amy, whom he saw for the first time all day.

“I need some luck, Ame,” he said. They embraced. They kissed. And Phil headed to the rest of his round.

So much about Mickelson at the Masters is the same as it ever was. To wit, after he left his hug with his wife, he pulled driver from his bag with his ball in the middle of the eighth fairway, scorched it off the deck. Hello, hellacious seed.

“Salty,” Mickelson said.

The hole was 282 yards away, up the hill. He nearly jarred it.

“Terrible break,” he said later. And smiled.

Phil Mickelson smiling at the Masters was once as reliable as the azaleas blooming in full. At 52, though, he seems a shell of himself, personally and professionally. There’s a lot to unpack here and not just about Thursday.

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But in the first round of this Masters, this was Phil in full. Buckle up.

In order, Mickelson hit driver off pine straw through trees en route to a birdie at No. 2, hit a bump-and-run pitch that rolled back toward his feet on his way to a bogey at No. 3, jarred a 30-footer for a birdie at No. 9, dunked his approach from the middle of the fairway at 11 resulting in a double bogey, stuck his tee shot at the treacherous 12th to six feet for a birdie, flipped over an 8-iron and took a full swing right-handed because his ball was up against a tree at 14, sloppily plopped his tee shot in the water at 16, then nearly holed the re-tee.

Somehow, that adds up to 1-under-par 71. Only for Phil.

“I hit a lot of good shots today and had a chance to shoot a low round,” Mickelson said. “But this is the issue I’ve been dealing with is I’ll make two swings and it costs me four shots on 11 and 16.”

That familiar roller-coaster aside, Mickelson’s appearance here, at his 30th Masters, is far different from the previous 29. Since he last turned up at Augusta in 2021, he has called the Saudi Arabian government “scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” before getting involved with them by joining Saudi-funded LIV Golf. He took a leave from the game, which included missing the Masters for the first time since 1994. He reappeared as LIV’s leading light but has produced decidedly lousy golf.

In 10 LIV events, he has placed in the top 10 once, and his average finish is 31st. Reminder: LIV has 48-player fields. That stinks. The last time Mickelson made the cut in a 72-hole event was a year ago February, when he tied for 18th in an event in — wait for it — Saudi Arabia.

It all has made him borderline competitively irrelevant, which is almost inconceivable.

“Phil!” one fan crowed as Mickelson played the first hole. “We have the same handicap!”

Mickelson wore a black shirt and a black hat, and his caddie/brother, Tim, carried a black golf bag — all marked with the logo of Mickelson’s LIV team.

“All right, HyFlyers,” someone from the gallery said off the eighth green. Mickelson gave a thumbs-up.

“I needed something different, and I’m having a lot of fun having three teammates and having a different energy and a fun environment,” he said afterward. “And I want to play and compete at that level.”

Svrluga: The Masters doesn’t need LIV Golf. LIV Golf badly needs the Masters.

Whatever happens here, Mickelson’s slide has been precipitous, both in performance and perception. Yeah, that’s assuming that he can’t and won’t contend this weekend at Augusta, where he hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2015. Age is certainly a factor, even for the oldest man to win a major championship, which he accomplished less than two years ago at the PGA Championship. But there are inarguably self-inflicted wounds that have chipped away at his image and, it would seem, his joy.

Mickelson’s quotes to author Alan Shipnuck starkly revealed what he was willing to ignore about the Saudi government’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its horrendous human rights record, particularly as it pertains to LGBTQ people. What mattered, Mickelson said, was that “the Saudi money has finally given us leverage” to use against the PGA Tour.

Given it all, Mickelson is here as a lessened character. Four years ago, he posted a playful video on Twitter as he drove up Magnolia Lane and proclaimed himself ready to start “hitting bombs!” It was hysterical.

That persona has largely evaporated, and it showed in the gallery that followed him, which was decidedly smaller than in years past. When Mickelson’s group made its way up the first fairway, Tiger Woods was walking down the ninth, which runs parallel. The mass of humanity trudged toward the ninth green.

Mickelson almost always has seemed inspired at Augusta National. He is a world-class prankster and storyteller. Yet Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters winner, told Golfweek that at Tuesday night’s champions dinner, Mickelson “didn’t speak at all.” Tommy Aaron, who won here in 1973, said, “He didn’t say a word.”

For Mickelson, that’s more of a transformation than laying up on a par 5.

“I thought it was really a special night,” Mickelson said, “and fun to be a part of.”

Whatever. There’s clearly still some Phil in Phil. He looks drastically thinner, and he said he lost 25 pounds. What gives?

“I stopped eating food,” he said. “That was a big help.”

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When he hit his tee shot wide right of the second fairway, he may be the only person on Earth who would have assessed that specific shot — on pine straw, with the trees in front looking more like a brick wall than any sort of window — and pulled driver.

“I thought that I could keep a driver low,” Mickelson said, “and cut it easier than a 3-wood.”

Sure. Totally normal. That’s old-school Phil: Where others see trouble, he sees opportunity.

Maybe that’s one way to think of his jump to LIV. That decision should not be mentioned without reminders that the money he and his cronies accepted is covered in blood. Aside from that, this is an enormously important week for LIV’s legitimacy as a competitive tour. The review Thursday: LIV’s Brooks Koepka shared the lead atop a spectacular board, but only one other LIV player sits in the top 25.

Mickelson is a six-time major winner pledging to push that tour forward. To do that, he needs to play better golf. Whether Thursday was a step toward that is unknowable. More importantly, so is whether a once-secure legacy can ever be restored in full.

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