Nerves even get to former Masters champions

‘Lefty’ a 3-time victor of Augusta’s green jackets

Phil Mickelson kisses his wife Amy on Wednesday during the par-3 tournament.
Phil Mickelson kisses his wife Amy on Wednesday during the par-3 tournament.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was noted to Phil Mickelson that five of the past 10 winners at the Masters were left-handed. Of course, three of those five green jackets have been won by Mickelson.

Asked for an explanation why left-handers have prospered at the Augusta National Golf Club, Mickelson said, “Well, I think we are certainly cooler.”

Mickelson is certainly one of the coolest customers in the history of the Masters, sprinkling his victories in 2006, 2008, and 2010 with four top-3 finishes and 14 top-10 finishes in 20 career appearances.

One of those came last year when he began the final round in second place, one shot behind the 54-hole leader, Pete Hanson, but took himself out of contention with a triple-bogey at the par-3 fourth hole.

For all his prowess as a left-hander, Mickelson’s quest for a fourth green jacket went awry when he had to play two trouble shots right-handed on the par-3 hole.

“I’ve been fortunate to come out on top a few years and I’ve been unfortunate to have a number of them come close but not quite good enough,” Mickelson said.

“Either way, having that opportunity to be in the thick of it and to feel that excitement, to feel that pressure, to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies and trying to win a green jacket, that is the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience.”

Mickelson is hoping to experience that same thrill again this week when the 77th Masters begins today at Augusta National.

Last year, it was another left-hander, Bubba Watson, who broke down in tears from the thrill of winning the Masters after his improbable recovery shot on the second playoff hole.

Nothing brings out the joy and competitive juices for Mickelson like a drive down Magnolia Lane.

But, when he does it today, he will do so with a self-admitted case of the nerves, something you might not expect from a three-time Masters champion.

The reason for the jitters: Mickelson did not play in a PGA Tour event last week, something he usually does the week before the Masters.

“Well, I want to play well; I want to play well in this tournament,” Mickelson said. “I love this tournament so much and I’m nervous because I haven’t been in competition since the Sunday of the Houston Open, and that’s been — it will be 10, 11 days, I guess, as opposed to three.

“And that’s what I’m nervous about, just those first opening five or six holes, being mentally tuned in. That’s what I care about.”

Then he added: “Now, because I’m aware of it, I’m going to work hard on it to make sure that I am.

“But it’s always a challenge those first five or six holes when you haven’t been in competition to be really mentally focused and sharp.”

Mickelson has twice come to Augusta National fresh off victories the week before, and, in 2006, he was able to follow up his 13-shot victory at the BellSouth Classic in suburban Atlanta with a victory at the Masters.

Two years ago, after winning the Shell Houston Open, he finished tied for 27th at the Masters.

In 2010, after finishing 35th a week earlier in Houston, he won the Masters for the third time.

Nonetheless, Mickelson is comfortable when he plays Augusta National.

“It comes from knowing I don’t have to play perfectly to play well here,” Mickelson said. “I don’t have to hit perfect shots to make pars.

“There are a lot of holes here where I can make mistakes off the tee and with my short game I know can recover. If I get up by the green, I’ll get it on close to the hole and make a putt for par.

“And knowing that, I relax, because I don’t have to be perfect.”

Mickelson had a chance to be the No. 1 player in the world last year if he had won the Masters. It would have been his fourth green jacket, tying him with Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer for the second most behind Jack Nicklaus (6).

Mickelson has won two of his three green jackets since Woods’ previous victory in the Masters (2005).

He already has a dominating victory this season in the Waste Management Phoenix Open but Woods comes to Augusta National with three wins in 2013 and atop the world rankings again.

“I think that even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he’s capable of, and so you’re always looking at his score.” Mickelson said of Woods.

“You’re always worried about him making that big run the way he’s always done throughout his career.

“And now that he’s doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.”

PAYNE SIDESTEPS CONTROVERSY: Masters chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday he and the club will stay out of the controversial debate over “anchoring” of the long putter.

“We are not a governing body,” Payne said during his state of the Masters address. “We are a golf club that puts on a tournament, so we would be presumptuous to say that we have that kind of influence.”

The United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club — golf’s two governing bodies — are in favor of banning the practice of “anchoring” the putter against the chest/sternum. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America are in favor of keeping it legal for players to use the long putter.

“Given the fact that the ruling bodies have not yet declared a decision following that open comment period, I do think it would be inappropriate for us to express an opinion, other than to say that we hope and believe that they can reach common ground so that golf will continue under one set of rules,” Payne said.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.