Phil Mickelson flashed a huge smile to the crowd around the first tee at Augusta National, slapping hands with some of the patrons who had been waiting for him to arrive.
There was a “Go get ‘em, Phil!” here and a “Let’s go Devils” there, a nod to his Arizona State roots. And when he placed his first tee shot in the fairway, there was little more than a smattering of polite applause.
For the 52-year-old Mickelson, it was a thoroughly uneventful and unusually quiet way to start his Masters. But that’s exactly what made it so remarkable.
Mickelson is usually a happening unto himself — especially here at a tournament he’s won three times. Over the course of his 30 years playing the Masters, only one player has drawn bigger, more enthusiastic galleries.
In a fascinating bit of timing, throngs of fans were lining up along the ninth fairway just a few steps away in anticipation of that player — Tiger Woods, of course — passing through shortly after Mickelson’s round began.
Just a couple of years ago, the sport’s two most popular players crossing paths on Thursday at the Masters would have caused a human traffic jam. But these days, only one of them is as big of a draw as they used to be.
It’s not that Mickelson, now the face of LIV Golf and the existential crisis that enveloped the sport over the last year, was received poorly in his return to Augusta after taking a hiatus last year.
It just wasn’t your typical Mickelson gallery, even on a day where he put together something that at least vaguely resembled a vintage Mickelson roller coaster round of 71, including three missed eagle putts, two trips into the water on the back nine, a driver off pine straw and a right-handed eight iron on 14 that he couldn’t play lefty because his ball had nestled against a tree.
“I was actually enjoying it and appreciative of the opportunity to be here,” Mickelson said. “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.”
Of course, the reason Mickelson wondered if his future at the Masters might be in doubt was readily apparent on his chest and hat. When Mickelson became the public ringleader for LIV, the Saudi-backed renegade league that was paying ridiculous amounts of guaranteed money to poach PGA Tour players, his corporate sponsorships disintegrated.
So Mickelson is now wearing the logo of the HyFlyers, the LIV team he captains with James Piot, Brendan Steele and Cameron Tringale.
But let’s be real. Besides his out-of-nowhere triumph at the 2021 PGA Championship that gave him a sixth major title, there’s been little reason to take Mickelson’s golf seriously over the last couple of years. Since making the move to LIV, he’s had one top-10 finish in 10 events. This season, he’s finished 27th, 32nd and 41st, with just three of nine rounds in the 60s. Both before and immediately after his PGA win, Mickelson wasn’t contending for much of anything.
In an attempt to turn that around, Mickelson lost a significant amount of weight. Though his waistline has expanded and contracted at various points over the years, he is noticeably slimmer than he has been in a very long time. For a 52-year-old man, he looks terrific.
“I’ve got to be in shape to be able to have a (swing) speed that allows me to compete,” Mickelson said. “And also for overall health. Everything I’m doing is for wellness, right? I want to be healthy and well and not have any issues and not have any cardiac issues. I want to be fit and be able to enjoy life, because this is a really fun chapter right now for Amy and I.”
So this Masters is, in a sense, golf’s re-introduction to the new Mickelson.
The question is whether it’s going to help him win back any of the love and admiration that has clearly been lost over the last year.
Though Mickelson said the fans have “been great all week” to him, they were not the same size and fervor you’d have found following him a few years ago. And he denied reports of awkwardness at the Tuesday dinner for past champions, saying it was “a really special night and fun to be a part of.”
Maybe the relationship between Mickelson and the wider world of pro golf will never be normal again. But you can imagine that just being here Thursday was perhaps the most normal thing he’s been a part of in a long while.
“I think it’s fun to be in the Masters every year, know you’re going to be in this tournament, know you’re going to be a part of this regardless of how you’re playing,” Mickelson said. “I feel like you can play this golf course and not have to be perfect. As long as you put it in the correct spots, you can kind of manage your game around and shoot a number. I think that’s why I always enjoy playing here is because I feel a little bit more relaxed, like I don’t have to be perfect.”
He certainly wasn’t on Thursday.
After draining a tricky eight-footer for par on the first hole, he sent his tee shot on the par-5 second well right of the fairway bunker and into a spectator area where he didn’t have many options.
So in a typical Mickelson move, he chose the one few would expect: A driver that he wanted to keep under tree branches and get back into play. But Mickelson couldn’t avoid all the foliage, and the ball careened to another area of patrons on the opposite side of the fairway. He still got up-and-down for the first of his six birdies.
But, also typical of Mickelson, there were some mind-numbing mistakes. On No. 3, he tried to bump-and-run a short approach shot up the hill and onto the green where the pin was in front. He never made it and paid the price with a bogey. He flared one into the water left on 11 and then missed a 10-footer for bogey. Then after a good birdie on 15, he took a terrible swing on the par-3 16th and went well left of his target into the pond.
“I hit a lot of good shots today and had a chance to shoot a low round,” he said. “But this is the issue I’ve been dealing with is I’ll make two swings and it costs me four shots on 11 and 16. I just need to keep working on eliminating it. I’m hitting enough good shots to shoot some good numbers, and I’m having fun playing, and I’m having fun hitting the shots again and driving it well.
“Just need to stay a little bit sharper on one or two swings because in major championships, the punishment for a mis-hit is so severe.”