AUGUSTA, Ga. - For the first time in his illustrious 13-year career, Phil Mickelson enters a major championship as — dare we say it? — the favorite. Apparently, winning the Masters last year to snap an 0-for-43 skid in the majors, along with three victories in 2005, will do that for you.
Lefty’s lofty position was strengthened considerably on Monday at the BellSouth Classic in nearby Atlanta, where he was the last one standing in a five-man playoff that lasted four holes. Just think, the former Arizona State All-American might win twice in the same week should he come out on top Sunday afternoon at Augusta National.
Always quick with the one-liners, Mickelson flipped the "favorite’’ line back on a reporter when he was asked: "Does this feel different to finally be the favorite at a major?"
"It feels different to have you say it, yes,’’ Phil said with a wink.
Then, after the laughter subsided, Mickelson said he was speaking in general terms about the media, and he quickly added: "It’s really cool to play well at the start of the year and to be looked upon as a favorite, but that doesn’t mean anything.’’
Make no mistake, Mickelson is soaking up the sun this week (it hasn’t rained yet, but it’s in the forecast), and enjoying his perch in the catbird’s seat. Whether he can join Tiger Woods (2001-02), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) as the only players to defend their Masters titles remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: He’s learning the major ropes fairly quickly even if there are a few slips, like last week in Atlanta, when he said, "My main goal now is to get that lonely jacket a little buddy to hang with.’’
Mickelson’s reference was to the green jacket he won here last year, which symbolizes his entry into the elite fraternity of past Masters champions. Only problem is, you only get one jacket no matter how many times you win, unless your size changes, and so far it appears that the 43-long still fits.
That’s not the first time Lefty missed the fairway when it came to Masters protocol. He also got a mild surprise earlier in the year, when on his way to winning the FBR Open at the TPC of Scottsdale he was informed he had to pick up the check for the Champions Dinner, which was held Tuesday night.
"Really?’’ he asked, his jaw dropping slightly when told that Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champ, got a bill for $9,000.
Chances are Mickelson’s menu of lobster ravioli, Caesar salad and garlic bread won’t cost quite as much as Weir’s dinner that featured wild game. Then again, Augusta National has a very extensive/ expensive wine list.
"No! Are you kidding me?’’ he said Tuesday when asked if he thought the check would be less than $10,000. "After (Monday), there will be no sympathy.’’
The $900,000 he won at the BellSouth boosted his seasonleading total to just under $4 million. It seems almost a certainty he will top his best season, money-wise, which came last year when he racked up $5.6 million.
Obviously, the 34-year-old Mickelson is maturing nicely as his game continues to get better, if that’s possible. One thing about Lefty, he is not afraid to speak frankly and even passionately, a quality that eventually might make him more popular than Tiger, especially if Mickelson keeps winning.
For instance, Woods was asked during his press conference on Tuesday if he thought it was good for golf that the sport now has a "Big Four’’ in himself, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els (with a big pardon to Retief Goosen).
"I could care less,’’ Tiger shot back. "I’m worried about getting the ball in the hole.’’
Same basic question to Mickelson: "I think we all enjoy playing against the best at their best. That’s what we all want.’’
Hmmm. While both answers seem totally acceptable, Mickelson’s is clearly more in the spirit of the game.
Sure, Phil will bobble the ball from time to time, but for the most part, he gets it.
Like Monday, shortly after his 26th career win, when yet another media type mentioned that winning a tournament the week before the Masters was not necessarily a good omen.
Au contraire, Mickelson countered.
"Sandy Lyle in 1988.’’
Lefty was right on, as Lyle was one of only three players, along with Arnold Palmer (1958) and Art Wall (’59), to pull off the rare double.