AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson plays the majors these days looking comfortable and confident, and he’ll own that same expression once again this week in the Masters.
But it wasn’t always that way for the popular lefthander.
In his first 11 appearances at Augusta National Golf Club, Mickelson ended up third on four occasions and posted three other finishes in the top 10. He also had come agonizingly close in other majors and had seen his streak as a professional reach 42 starts without a victory prior to the 2004 Masters.
That’s why, when his 18-foot birdie putt sneaked into the cup for a birdie on the 72d hole that year and earned him his first green jacket, he reacted more with relief than with excitement.
What could not be mistaken, however, was that his first major triumph took a big weight off his shoulders and enabled him to compete from that point in grand slam events without the pressure of having to win his first.
“That win, it just propelled me,” the 43-year-old Mickelson said Tuesday at his pre-Masters news conference. “I knew once I won one, I really felt confident I would win a few. But I needed to get that first one, and that was a big one.
“You want so bad to win the Masters and be part of the history here, and sometimes you get in your own way. Sometimes you force things when you shouldn’t. Sometimes your mind goes where it shouldn’t ... and it’s sometimes difficult to control your thoughts.
“But when you’ve won it ... it’s a confidence- and a momentum-builder when you can look back on that. It’s a huge thing to have already done it.”
In all, Mickelson has won three Masters, adding 2006 and 2010 to his resume. He also captured the 2005 PGA Championship and last year’s British Open, where he rallied from a 5-stroke deficit entering the final round and shot a closing 66 at Muirfield.
That last win in Scotland, he said, was a different experience than Masters title No. 1.
“There was a (great) amount of pressure that became relief that I won (in 2004), as opposed to joy,” he said. “When I won the British Open, I just felt so ecstatic and such great joy to have had that accomplishment, and there was really no sense of relief in there. There was a sense of relief 10 years ago because it had been building for a while.”
Mickelson enters the Masters coming off a couple of injuries. He withdrew from the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines last January with back issues, and also pulled out of the Texas Open two weeks ago with a strained oblique. His best finish, a tie for 12th, came at last week’s Shell Houston Open.
“I’m nervous about this week,” he said, “because I always like coming into this week with a win ... being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on. But I have to give myself a little bit of slack because I have not been 100 percent.”
Mickelson said he felt 100 percent last week and that he feels great physically as he goes for a fourth green jacket, which would put him in select company.
“I do know that Arnold (Palmer) and Tiger (Woods) have four jackets and I have three,” he said with a smile. “I know Jack (Nicklaus) has six but nothing I can do about that right now. I’m just trying to get to where the two ahead of me are.”