Ten years. Ten years? TEN YEARS!?!?
It has been 10 years since Phil Mickelson won his first major championship, besting Ernie Els with a miraculous putt on the 18th green at Augusta National, transforming Lefty from the best player to never win a major into a bona fide Hall of Famer.
(I mean technically it has been 11 years since Phil first won the Masters, but the numeric connection of 2004 and 2014 makes this anniversary much cleaner to chronicle. And yes, I clicked the above link and suddenly can't stop imagining John Cusack starring in a movie about Mickelson's career with Jeremy Piven playing the role of caddy Jim "Bones" Mackay.)
It has been a decade since Mickelson put together one of the great second nines in Augusta history, carding a five-under 31 over the final stretch on Sunday to beat Els by one stroke. It may have taken him a while to win that first major, but Mickelson has certainly managed to make up for lost time.
The last 10 years have been remarkably good to Mickelson on the PGA Tour, which is to say Mickelson, himself, has remained remarkably good on the PGA Tour. Since 2004, Phil has won more than 20 tournaments, including five major championships.
Mickelson has finished in the top five in a major 15 times since the start of 2004, a span of 39 events entered. He has earned a few burnt edges shy of $50 million on Tour since getting fitted for his first green jacket. That's more money than all but three others have ever earned on the PGA Tour. In just 10 years.
The thing is, as good as the last 10 years have been for Mickelson, there is no indication he has plans of disappearing anytime soon.
(Ooh, but now I'm imagining Lefty and Bones in a rom-com where Phil has disappeared for 10 years and becomes a hired gunman who goes back home to find true love, while his old pal hangs around just to make golf puns the entire flick. I mean, come on…if we keep Minnie Driver as the movie's love interest, those puns will write themselves.)
Mickelson has been a bit sheepish about his chances at Augusta this year, still recovering from an oblique issue that gave him fits for the better part of two weeks in March. He seems healthy after finishing 12th at the Shell Houston Open this past weekend, but he told reporters, via GolfChannel.com, that he feels…nervous…heading into Augusta.
I haven’t had the results, I haven’t been in contention and I haven’t won this year, so I’m certainly nervous about my chances.
I think it’s important to have some momentum and to have been in contention heading into the Masters because there’s a lot of pressure there, you feel it.
Mickelson is right to feel the pressure heading into the Masters this season, as he doesn't have much momentum after a slow start to 2014. In nine events this season, Lefty has failed to complete three of them, missing the cut at the Honda Classic and withdrawing from both the Farmer's Insurance Open in January and the recent Valero Texas Open in late March.
In his last 30 rounds, Mickelson has just 15 rounds under par, with only eight shot in the 60s, three of which came in offseason events in October and November. Since the start of 2014, he has just five rounds of sub-70 golf with zero top-10 finishes so far this season.
Mickelson should feel even more pressure after coming off a terrible year at the Masters in 2013, finishing in a distant tie for 54th, a stroke per hole behind champion Adam Scott.
The finish was the worst of Mickelson's Masters career since 1997, when he missed the cut. It was just the third time since 1998 that Mickelson didn't finish in the top 12 at Augusta.
So yes, Phil has every right to be nervous.
And yet, with his history at Augusta, Phil has every right being mentioned as one of the favorites as well. With Tiger Woods absent from this year's tournament, Mickelson is the ranking career leader in the clubhouse with three green jackets. There are just three players in history—Tiger, Arnie and Jack—who have more wins at Augusta than Phil, and just two—Tiger and Jack—with more top-five finishes.
The list of players with more top-10 finishes than Mickelson at the Masters is a who's-who of the greatest players in the history of the game. Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Tom Watson. That's the list, with Mickelson tied with Byron Nelson just behind them with 14 top 10s in 20 professional starts.
Mickelson also has the best scoring average of any player with 75 or more rounds at Augusta, a statistic that is somewhat skewed by the likes of Nicklaus and Watson playing so many years after their prime that their overall average may be slightly higher than just during their championship-contending seasons. Still, the only players in Masters history with more than 25 rounds with a stroke average below 72 are Woods (70.86), Mickelson (71.13), Fred Couples (71.88), Angel Cabrera (71.94), Nicklaus (71.98) and, somewhat inexplicably after just 28 rounds, Jerry Pate (71.96).
Even in a down year, history shows that Mickelson shouldn't be counted out at the Masters.
In 2010, Mickelson was having a dreadful year by his standards, with one top 10 in his first seven tournaments before heading to Augusta. In fact, 2010 was so bad for Mickelson he finished the season with just six top 10s and one win—that came at the Masters.
The four tournaments preceding that 2010 Masters had Mickelson finish in a tie for 24th, 14th, 30th and 35th, with more rounds in the 70s—including a few in the upper 70s—than those in the 60s. When he got to Augusta, Phil shot 67-71-67-67 to finish three shots clear of the field, carding the third-lowest score in tournament history.
Mickelson might be nervous about not having momentum this season, but it hasn't mattered before. In fact, momentum has worked both ways for Mickelson in the past, winning the Bell South Classic the week before taking the 2006 Masters and then finishing in a tie for 27th—one of his worst finishes ever—in the 2011 Masters, a week after winning the Shell Houston Open.
So, honestly, who knows with Phil? He doesn't even know.
Last season he followed his dismal Masters result with a run of three near victories—including a heartbreaking second place at the U.S. Open—and two missed cuts before winning, rather incredibly, the Open Championship.
Following his British crown, Mickelson had just one top 10 the rest of the season, which included a 72nd-place finish in the PGA Championship.
A tie for 54th, a runner-up finish, a win and a tie for 72nd.
While last season was a bit of a major championship roller coaster, this season seems to be set up incredibly well for Mickelson to get back into contention in the majors.
Clearly his record at the Masters makes 2013 look like the exception, not the rule. Even as Phil rounds into his mid-40s, he still should be more competitive than he was last season at Augusta. And then comes Pinehurst, where the U.S. Open returns for the first time since Mickelson was famously defeated on the 72nd hole by Payne Stewart in 1999.
Mickelson has six runner-up finishes at our national championship, including the heartbreaker on his birthday last season, so if the golf gods actually exist, the skies will part and the sun will shine on Phil at Pinehurst this season.
The Open is at Royal Liverpool, where Mickelson finished tied for 22nd in the 2006 Open Championship, one of just a handful of top-25 finishes for Lefty across the pond, while the PGA Championship is at Valhalla, where Phil finished in the top 10 in both the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships.
The early spring has been rough, but a good result at Augusta could be a harbinger for this becoming the Summer of Phil.
First things first, it seems. Mickelson still has to get through four huge rounds this weekend before he can begin to worry about the other majors. Yet despite the nervousness coming out of Houston, nobody knows the undulations of Augusta better than Phil.
“I’m not sure at what point it will change, but that golf course is just tailor-made for the way I like to play,” he told reporters recently, via Augusta.com. “Short game, such a big factor. The way I know the greens. It’s so critical to know the intricacies and nuances, which I’ve learned over the years. I don’t know at what point I won’t be feeling as though I have a great chance to win, but certainly right now I feel I do."
Vegas seems to agree. According to odds posted by VegasInsider.com, Mickelson is at 15/1 odds to win the Masters this season, behind only Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy and tied with Jason Day and Matt Kuchar.
This may not be Phil's Masters to lose—the field is far too deep to suggest that even if he came in at the top of his game—but it's certainly not the time to write Lefty off.
It will never be time to write Mickelson off at Augusta. After all, it's been 10 great years since he won his first major.
Ten very great years.
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