Mickelson emerging as a Masters favorite

Posted April 05, 2011, at 6:03 p.m.
Last modified April 05, 2011, at 7:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — He is the talk of the Masters, and for good reason. No other player can top his record at Augusta National over the last decade, with three green jackets, eight finishes in the top five and a signature moment just about every year.

That guy used to be Tiger Woods.

Now it’s Phil Mickelson.

It goes beyond Mickelson being the defending champion, listed for the first time as the betting favorite from London to Las Vegas, and at No. 3 in the world being the highest-ranked American for the first time in his career.

Just listen to some of the players.

“It seems that everyone has pretty much got Mickelson in the green jacket Sunday evening and there’s not much use in turning up at this point,” U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said with a small measure of sarcasm. “He’s a great player around Augusta, and if you finish ahead of him, you’ve got a decent chance.”

PGA champion Martin Kaymer, ranked No. 1 in the world, was asked who is the more dominant player at the Masters.

“I think Phil,” he replied.

And here’s what one player had to say about Woods, a four-time Masters champion.

“I don’t think he’ll finish in the top five,” Ian Poulter said. “The shots he was hitting at Doral, they were very inconsistent. You can’t hit shots like that on this golf course and get away with it. I don’t think you want to rely on your short game that much around this place.”

Woods hasn’t been chopping it up at Augusta. He also has three wins over the last 10 years, and that doesn’t include his record 12-shot victory as a 21-year-old in 1997. He was the runner-up in consecutive years, and his tie for fourth a year ago was impressive considering it was his first competition in five months following a humiliating sex scandal.

What makes Mickelson stand out are the 18 birdies he made on the weekend at the Houston Open to win by three shots, his first victory since the Masters last year.

“I felt like that golf was in me this year, but I haven’t been getting it out,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t had the same type of mental focus throughout the round that I expect. So to be able to have that type of performance heading into here feels very good. Reminds me a lot of 2006, when I was able to put it together the week before and carry the momentum through.”

Woods doesn’t have any momentum.

He now has gone 17 months since he last won at the Australian Masters, just 12 days before his car crashed into a fire hydrant and his life unraveled. He really hasn’t been close except for the Chevron World Challenge at the end of last year when he blew a four-shot lead in the final round and lost to McDowell in the playoff.

He sounded as confident as ever Tuesday, answering questions about his chances with a pursed smile and “Mmm-hmmm.” Asked if fans had seen his best golf, Woods replied, “No.”

“I believe in myself,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with believing in myself. God, I hope you guys feel the same way about yourselves. That’s the whole idea, that you can always become better.”

As for the Poulter comments?

“Well, Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods said. “My whole idea is to try to win the golf tournament, and that’s what I’m trying to do. My whole idea is to prepare. I’ve prepared all year to peak four times a year, and that has not changed.”

There was a real storm that blew through Augusta overnight, toppling trees and power lines across town. The gates to Augusta opened 45 minutes late to give workers a chance to clean the course of debris.

Mickelson worked out on the range with Butch Harmon, then headed home to rest. He skipped a final practice round, feeling as though the conditions wouldn’t help him much. He’ll play Wednesday instead.

The wind pushed the clouds away, and sunshine is forecast the rest of the week. That figures to make Augusta National even faster than usual, putting a special premium on putting. That’s where Woods has been struggling most.

“I have been streaky here for some reason, and you can’t be streaky here,” he said. “You have to get it going and you have to keep it going. The years that I’ve won here, I’ve putted well the entire week. No matter how you play the golf course, you’re going to have to make 6- and 8-footers for par. And some of those years, I didn’t make those putts.”

The differences between Mickelson and Woods could be found in their news conferences. Woods was grilled on his swing change under Sean Foley, what he’s trying to accomplish, how far along he is in the process and why he changed in the first place.

“I felt that taking a step back, or sometimes even two steps back, there’s nothing wrong with that if I’m going to make three, four, five steps forward and becoming better in the end,” he said.

Mickelson looked as relaxed as ever.

He spoke of the pure joy of driving down Magnolia Lane, how it energizes his love for the game and for this tournament. And for more than a half-hour, he sprinkled in his share of one-liners.

Someone asked if he went back to the spot right of the 13th fairway, where last year in the final round he boldly hit 6-iron off the pine straw within 4 feet.

“I didn’t see the point,” he said. “I’ve already done that.”

Kaymer had said he wishes he could be left-handed because he hits a fade, and for a southpaw that shape works best at Augusta.

“I would love Martin to play this tournament left-handed,” Mickelson said.

But he wouldn’t touch a couple of questions. One was whether he thought Woods, with 14 majors, could surpass the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. And the other was how it felt to be ordained as the favorite at this Masters.

“I don’t know,” Mickelson said. “I certainly enjoy this place and have it enjoyed and have felt great on this golf course even before I won here. I felt like it was a course I could play well on, and I really enjoy playing it every year.”

Tiger or Phil?

He’ll leave that to others. And even though both players appear to be going in different directions, it’s not an easy answer.

“Tough one,” Nick Watney said. “I’d say they’re 1-A and 1-B.”

He just didn’t say which was which.

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