Out of Tiger's shadow: Lefty feeling good about his game

Phil Mickelson walks with his 5-year-old son, Evan, to the second green during the Par 3 Contest.
Phil Mickelson walks with his 5-year-old son, Evan, to the second green during the Par 3 Contest.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He owns 31 PGA Tour tournament championships and ranks second in the world. His credentials include three major titles, including two of the past four Masters. His performance chart this year shows a victory in Los Angeles and a near-miss in Phoenix.

Yet, Phil Mickelson -- like all the others -- comes to the 72nd Masters reduced to almost an afterthought.

Is Tiger Woods' shadow that imposing?

Should this tournament be renamed the Tiger Closed?

Yeah, maybe Tiger looms that large in the golf world's collective mind, and, yeah, that can be a touchy subject for some of the pros. Most go out of their way to avoid comments that would give the world's No. 1 player more inspiration.

"I don't think it really matters if you're favored or not or what people expect," Mickelson said in previewing the year's first major championship that opens today. "I think that nobody expected, let's say, last year's winner, yet we as players knew what a good player Zach Johnson was. ... I think how you're perceived heading into the tournament really doesn't matter."

How is that for tap-dancing around a direct answer?

Yet, listening to him and reading between the lines sends a message: Don't forget about me.

Mickelson's record at Augusta National sparkles and provides ample reason for confidence. Before a tie for 24th last year, he had finished no worse than 10th in his past eight Masters.

"I love this golf course, I love this tournament, and I love that when you get here, you don't have to be perfect," he said. "You don't have to hit everything perfect to be able to score well."

The course, which has grown by 460 yards since 1999, favors longer hitters, a list that includes Woods and Mickelson. But that is only part of the game that helped Mickelson earn the title in 2004 and '06.

"You have to be able to miss (shots) on the proper sides of the greens, and you have to have a great short game," he said. "You have to get up and down a lot from around the greens, and I think those have always been areas of my game I feel the most comfortable with.

"That is probably why I always believed before I had won a major that this would be my best opportunity to win one."

He won his first major, the 2004 Masters, with a birdie on the final hole and prevailed at Augusta National by two strokes in 2006.

The champion's margin of victory Sunday might be the same, but Mickelson said the scores will not.

Once a course that could yield a birdie feast, Augusta National takes on a more robust look with its super-sized length. Mickelson believes his winning totals of 9-under par and 7-under par have gone the way of the dinosaur.

"The (cold) weather played a role last year, but the scores won't be lower (than Johnson's 1-over-par winning total)," he said. "The scores may get a little big higher and, yeah, the length is the biggest factor."

Adding trees the past few years tightened the course, too, and the combination increased the emphasis on a strong short game.

The biggest change?

"What has changed the golf course immeasurably is one hole, and that's No. 7!," Mickelson said, citing the par-4 that played at 365 yards in 2001 and now measures 450.

"The whole thought process used to be (to) get through the first six holes around par, then you could birdie 7, 8 and 9. You had opportunities there. You could (make the) turn at under par, then you shoot under par on the back side and you have a great round."

Instead, he now ranks the seventh hole either first- or second-most difficult to make par.

"(The more difficult seventh) changes when you can be aggressive and how many birdie holes you have now, and the whole complexion and mindset of how to play the first six or seven holes (changes)," he said. "Now you feel like you have to be under par through six."

The increased length and tight fairway make for a challenging tee shot at the seventh, and Mickelson cited the difficulty of playing a mid-iron into a green "designed for a wedge."

"It's a really tough golf hole," he said.

Major championships should be about really tough golf holes, and Mickelson does not belittle his chances.

"I feel really good about my game," he said. " ... I'm excited heading into this tournament where I feel comfortable on and around the greens."

That does not sound like a guy prepared to play in Tiger's shadow.