The Loop

Verdi: If Not Tiger, They'll Gladly Root for Phil

April 11, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's starting to build now. If Tiger Woods isn't going to make a charge at this Masters--and even if he does--Phil Mickelson's legion of fans is beginning to think ahead. When the left-hander came to the No. 12 tee Friday, he was 3,000 miles from home, and yet he was accorded a standing ovation as if he were born across the street from Augusta National. After he completed the hole with par, the bleachers at Amen Corner emptied as though someone yelled "FIRE!" And remember. This was Friday.

A couple hours later, Mickelson completed his four-under 68 for a five-under total, three behind leader Trevor Immelman. When he left the Champions Room at about 4:30, it completed a rather full shift for the two-time Masters champion. He reported to the course at 7 a.m., when the sun had yet to awaken, for marathon putting drills before his 10:34 tee time--not an unusual session for Mickelson.

He converted a four-footer on No. 3 for birdie and a 10-footer for birdie on No. 8 toward 33 on the front side. He missed birdie putts on Nos. 15 and 16, but canned a 30-footer for birdie at the 17th for his only birdie on a breezy back nine. Uneventful, but effective. Earlier Mickelson was fortunate when his second to No. 13 drifted right and stayed up just by the hazard line, barely above the water. He failed to birdie that par 5, and could do no better at the 15th, also a par 5. But he pronounced himself pleased with a well-managed round of golf.

"I would love to be in the lead, but I would have had to press the issue at some spots and I didn't want to do that," said Mickelson, who noted what everybody is noting--Augusta National does not lend itself to the theatrics as it once did. As a result, roars are few instead of frequent. Mickelson's most spectacular act occurred on his first hole Thursday, when he made birdie from well off the green. "I would have had a tough up-and-down even for bogey there," said Mickelson. "That was a two- or three-shot swing right there." Then there was that lucky 13th, Thursday and Friday.  "I hit two shots in there that should have gone in the creek, and both stayed up," he said. "In 2004, when I hadn't won a major, I hit a shot there that Bones (caddie Jim Mackay) and I were sure went in the creek. But it stayed up and I wound up making birdie."

Omens? Perhaps. The galleries would like to think they are following him for a reason.

--Bob Verdi