AUGUSTA — Phil Mickelson showed up this week to play the Masters for the first time in two years and proceeded to behave like he was attending a funeral.
He seemed somber. Every interaction was muted. For the first time in 30 years of playing in this tournament, he had almost nothing to say in the build-up. Fuzzy Zoeller and Tommy Aaron told the Augusta Chronicle that Mickelson was essentially silent during the Champions Dinner, quietly eating his meal but not engaging anyone in conversation.
For someone who radiated joy every time he drove through the gates of Augusta National — including the time in 2019 when he recorded a video on his phone as he drove down Magnolia Lane and declared he was going to “hit bombs” all weekend — it felt strange to see him behave so differently at a place so familiar. However you feel about Mickelson’s decision to join LIV Golf and the relationships it strained, there was something sad about seeing him like this.
When he walked to the first tee just after noon on Thursday, the reaction from the patrons could best be described as subdued. He offered a few courtesy nods of appreciation, then a limp thumbs up, but his gallery felt thinner than it had in at least two decades. He still had a smattering of support, but nothing like it once was.
“He looks weird,” said one person in the crowd, leaning toward a friend.
“Yeah I think it’s a health thing,” the friend replied. “Isn’t he in those commercials for osteoporosis? Or wait, that’s not it. I think it’s that thing you get when you type too much. Carpal tunnel.”
“He looks good,” whispered an older patron as Mickelson teed up his ball. “He’s just lost that pot belly he used to have.”
It’s easy to feel like you’re in a bubble sometimes in golf media, where opinions and hot takes tend to blend together and bounce off one another on Twitter or podcasts, so I decided to spend the day in Mickelson’s gallery watching him navigate one of his favorite playgrounds while listening to the chatter of the people in attendance.
Over the course of the day, I heard a broad spectrum of opinions. I also watched Mickelson come alive for the first time in months.
“Hey Phil!” one man yelled as Mickelson made his way up the first fairway. “We have the same handicap!”
“Yeah, and it’s gambling,” his buddy replied, sending their friend group into a fit of laughter.
“You’re not allowed to yell at LIV players,” another gentleman whispered, elbowing his pal as they watched Mickelson fly his approach long of No. 1. “They’re real serious about that.”
At times, the commentary was friendly. And at times it didn’t make much logical sense.
“Phil we missed you this year in Jacksonville, hope you can defend your title next year!” one patron yells as Mickelson made his way to the second hole. I couldn’t tell if he meant the PGA Championship, which was played at Southern Hills in Tulsa, or The Players Championship, an event Mickelson won in 2007 but will almost certainly never appear in again, but the sentiment seemed sincere. Mickelson smiled and nodded as he walked by.
“What is that logo on his hat?” a woman asked her husband. “Is that the Hy Flyers logo? I really like it.”
On No. 2, when he hooked his drive well into the woods on the right, someone from well behind him called out just loud enough to be heard: “I bet LIV wants their money back!” which drew a few snickers. But when Mickelson ventured outside the ropes to find his ball, it turned into a priceless opportunity to pinch in close and listen to Mickelson debate with his caddie and brother, Tim, about how he might escape from jail.
“Oh shit, he’s gonna hit driver!” whispered someone as Mickelson pulled off his headcover.
It was a classic Mickelson gamble, deciding to hit a driver off the pine straw on the second hole of the tournament, but perhaps to no one’s surprise he (kind of) pulled it off, clipping a branch but also blasting the ball 223 yards across the fairway and into the woods on the left side of No. 2. From there the ball found a cart path and trickled to a stop eventually, a position Mickelson somehow made birdie from after a delicate pitch from across the green.
“That was insane!” one man recounted to his buddy as Mickelson loped after his ball. “As soon as I saw driver come out, the crowd just parted like the Red Sea! He sees all the angles!”
“I bet Phil could hit a flop shot with a 3 wood,” an older gentleman said, as Mickelson sized up his approach.
“I bet he thinks he could for sure,” joked his friend.
As his round went on, Mickelson seemed to draw energy from the circus. He was back in his element. He kept his head down early on, but as the day went on, he frequently responded with a limp thumbs up to those pleading for acknowledgment.
“I think he looks fit,” a woman mentioned to her friend on the 7th hole.
“I think he looks awful,” said a man nearby.
“Nah, he looks good,” she said. “I wish I could look that good.”
Mickelson’s round found its true spark on the 8th hole. After a good drive in the middle of the fairway, he chose to hit driver off the deck for the second time, smashing the kind of shot he once described as a hellacious seed toward the green. It was such a sensational shot, it was a fun reminder that, for all his blunders, few players have ever made golf on a razor’s edge as fun to watch. His shot chased onto the front of the green and ran a foot by the hole before it stopped on the back fringe to set up his second birdie.
“Salty,” Mickelson said when asked after the round what that shot felt like. “Really salty.”
Mickelson had been curt with reporters early in the week. But as he recounted some of his shots after the round, a flicker of the old Playful Phil couldn’t resist returning. When I nudged him into sharing more about the difficulty of that shot into No. 8, he proceeded to deliver a master class on how to attack that hole.
“That's a really hard second shot,” Mickelson said, breaking into a grin for one of the first times all week in front of the media. “I came out here a week or two ago and spent -- you know, hit ten balls, went and picked them up, hit ten balls again. I was trying different clubs for that shot. Because if you've got an uphill lie, you're going to pull draw. That's the tendency, right? So if you're a right-handed player, you're going to have that uphill lie, and it's going to shape it right up that green, and the draw's going to run. If I'm hitting a cut, that's a lot harder shot because, if I pull it right to the right pins, I'm not getting that up and down. I'm going to have a 50, 60-footer, and I'm fighting for par. If I come out and miss it left, it's a potential double over there with the trees and the flowers.
“And I've seen it all. I've been there. I can tell you. But if I pull that shot off, all of a sudden I've got birdie and almost made eagle. So that was a really hard shot that I ended up pulling off, and it allowed me to make a 4 when, if I didn't pull it off, there's no way I'm going to make a 4.”
The rest of the round was just as eventful. It was quintessential Mickelson. He birdied No. 9, but then made a double bogey from the middle of the fairway on No. 11. He hit an incredible shot into No. 12 to make a bounce-back birdie, then birdied both the 13th and 15th holes. In between, he hit an 8-iron right-handed after his drive landed near a tree. He hit a decent shot but still made bogey.
“I had like a leaf that I practice swung, and I was like, all right, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit the ball,” Mickelson said, explaining his thinking behind the decision. “If you ever watched Dodgeball, if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. I thought, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit a ball. I hit the leaf and did it twice, and I'm like, all right, I can do it. Let's go do it.”
As he made his way around the back 9, I heard plenty of cheers but also endless debates about LIV and whether Mickelson had made the right decision.
“You could buy a yacht with the bag he got,” said one man as they watched Mickelson bogey 16.
“You could buy four or five yachts,” his friend replied.
When Mickelson sprayed his drive left of 17, another discussion broke out about his fitness as he sized up his approach.
“There is less of him for me to not like,” one man mumbled. “I don’t like the rest either.”
“Money motivates everybody,” one man said to his wife as they watched Mickelson stare down a par putt. “For $100 million, I’d do pretty much anything. Hell, I’d push you down the stairs for $100 million.”
“You would, huh?” she said (mostly) laughing.
“Yeah, it ain’t like there is anybody out here recording me,” he said.
When the round ended, a wild and memorable 71, Mickelson handed out fist bumps along the rope line as he made his way into scoring, then reemerged several minutes later and hugged his wife, Amy, who had walked much of the round in the gallery. It was the first time in several years Amy Mickelson had attended a tournament. The couple embraced and chatted for a few seconds before Mickelson made his way toward reporters. He’d recently updated his Twitter profile to include the word “Husband” before the words “Lefty” and “LIV. Golfer.,” something that wasn’t there back in January.
“I was actually enjoying it and appreciative of the opportunity to be here,” Mickelson said when asked about the emotion of his round. “There was a lot of talk a year ago guys wouldn't be able to be here, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play and compete here and be a part of it.”
With his mood seemingly chipper, I couldn’t resist asking one of the questions on everyone’s mind: What led to the decision to lose so much weight?
“I needed something different, and I'm having a lot of fun having three teammates and having a different energy and a fun environment, and I want to play and compete at that level,” he said.
Sure, I said, but you’re skinnier than you’ve ever been.
“Thank you,” Mickelson said. “I stopped eating food, that was a big help.”
After a few more questions, Mickelson thanked the media and slipped away. He looked different, certainly, but for the first time in a long time, he sounded like his old self.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org