Masters 2011: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson still are ones to watch

— When Phil Mickelson turns his loaner Mercedes off Washington Road and onto Magnolia Lane here, setting up an iconic view of the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club, every blossom on every flower seems perfectly placed, every wisp of wind comforts rather than chills, and each of the 61 magnolias that lines that 330-yard approach seems to have a purpose.

To Tiger Woods, this is hardly a romantic journey. “Just looking at some trees, really,” he said Tuesday. But when Mickelson made that same turn that morning, in the hours after violent thunderstorms swept through Georgia, he noticed immediately: One of those 61 trees had been felled.

“It was just disappointing that a tree that’s been there for so many decades was uprooted [Monday] night,” Mickelson said. “It’s such a special drive. I was surprised that it wasn’t replaced in the first half hour.”

There, then, is the difference between the two men who have dominated both American golf and Augusta National for more than the last decade. Woods arrives here analyzing his game as if in a laboratory, flanked by beakers and Bunsen burners, a clinical approach that scarcely reveals his feelings for the place. Mickelson shows up not only embracing the emotion stirred by that little tree-lined drive, but needing it.

They have always provided a contrast, these two, but their differences enter a new stage this week. For the first time since prior to the 1997 Masters — when Woods won the first of the seven Masters he and Mickelson have taken — Mickelson sits ahead of Woods in the world rankings, third to Woods’s seventh. Indeed, for the first time since then, Woods — who hasn’t won a tournament of any sort in 17 months — isn’t the oddsmakers’ favorite here. Mickelson — the winner here a year ago, not to mention the winner Sunday at the Houston Open — is. The Augusta Chronicle’s Tuesday edition blared the headline: “Jacket Seen as Lefty’s to Lose.”

So begin this new Masters week with an old question: Tiger or Phil? Phil or Tiger?

“I think Phil,” said Martin Kaymer, the German who currently sits as the No. 1-ranked player in the world.

“He’s obviously popular here,” said Englishman Lee Westwood, runner-up to Mickelson a year ago. “I think most past champions are; more so with Phil, I guess, for some reason. I don’t know what reason that is.”

Perhaps it’s some combination of the reverence with which he approaches the event and the flair with which he plays it. Those around Augusta National like to be thought of in the loftiest of terms. Mickelson’s attitude here — “It’s certainly my favorite week of the year,” he said — plays right into that.

“When I come back to Augusta National, I just remember how much I loved it as a kid, dreamt of playing the tour, dreamt of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament and being a part of it,” Mickelson said. “All of the feelings come back when I drive down Magnolia Lane. It just reinvigorates my passion for the game.”

There is little overstating how steadfast Mickelson had to be in directing that passion into last year’s victory, his third at Augusta. He needed his signature shot, a why-are-you-doing-this 6-iron from the pine straw to the right of the 13th fairway, a stroke that somehow skirted a tree and carried Rae’s Creek to settle nicely near the pin. His wife Amy, stricken with breast cancer less than a year earlier, hadn’t been to a tournament until that day, and Mickelson melted into her embrace after putting out on 18. His mother Mary, also learning she had breast cancer in 2009, was there as well.

And Mickelson couldn’t know at the time, but he would battle debilitating arthritis later in the spring, pain bad enough that it hampered his walking and certainly hindered his play. Before the win over the weekend – in which he went 63-65 on Saturday and Sunday — he had finished better than ninth just once in eight events this year. He hadn’t won since last year’s Masters.

“I felt like that golf was in me this year, but I haven’t been getting it out,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t had the same type of mental focus throughout the round that I expect.”

That, now, seems to be cured. Mickelson said Tuesday his treatment for arthritis has gone well, and he is not limited at all physically. Mentally, the win in Houston — coupled with that drive down Magnolia Lane — has freed him.

Woods, it seems, would be the one to have issues with mental focus. He is not only in the midst of the third swing overhaul of his career and is still moving past last year’s divorce, but is enduring the longest slump of his career — 20 tournaments without a victory, just one finish better than 20th in five events this season.

Yet Tuesday, at the place he is at risk of ceding to Mickelson, Woods was asked whether his best had come and gone. “No,” he said quickly.

Really?

“I believe in myself,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with believing in myself.”

Mickelson can say the same thing. And when he does, he says it with feeling.

“It’s something that I’ve just come to love with all my heart and appreciate how great this place is,” he said, right down to every last tree on the drive in.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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