AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson flashed a huge smile to the crowd around the first tee at Augusta National, high-fived some of the patrons waiting for him to arrive.
There was a “Go get ’em, Phil!” here and a “Let’s go Devils” there, a nod to his roots in the state of Arizona. And when he put his first tee shot into the fairway, there was only a handful of polite applause.
For the 52-year-old Mickelson, it was a completely quiet and unusual way to start his master’s degree. But that’s exactly what made it so remarkable.
Mickelson is usually an event for himself – especially here at a tournament he’s won three times. In his 30 years playing the Masters, only one player has attracted bigger and more enthusiastic galleries.
In a fascinating moment, throngs of fans lined the ninth fairway a few paces away in anticipation of that player – Tiger Woods, of course – passing shortly after Mickelson’s round began.
Live Ranking: Latest Masters tournament scores, schedules, pairings and more
Just a few years ago, the sport’s two most popular players crossing paths on Thursday at the Masters would have caused a human traffic jam. But nowadays, only one of them is as important as before.
It’s not that Mickelson, now the face of LIV Golf and the existential crisis that has enveloped the sport over the past year, was poorly received when he returned to Augusta after taking a hiatus last year.
It just wasn’t your typical Mickelson gallery, even one day when he put together something that at least vaguely resembled a ’71 vintage Mickelson roller coaster ride, including three missed eagle putts, two trips to the water on the back nine, a pine-straw driver and a right-handed eight-for-14 iron that he couldn’t play left-handed because his ball had become nestled against a tree.
“I really enjoyed it and appreciated the opportunity to be here,” Mickelson said. “A year ago there was a lot of talk about the guys not being able to be here, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to play and compete here and be a part of it.”
Of course, the reason Mickelson wondered if his Masters future might be in doubt was evident on his chest and hat. When Mickelson became the public ringleader of LIV, the renegade Saudi-backed league that was paying ridiculous sums of guaranteed money to poach PGA Tour players, his corporate sponsorships disintegrated.
Mickelson therefore now wears the logo of the HyFlyers, the LIV team he leads with James Piot, Brendan Steele and Cameron Tringale.
But let’s be realistic. Other than his out-of-the-box triumph at the 2021 PGA Championship that earned him a sixth major title, there has been little reason to take Mickelson’s golf seriously over the past two years. Since switching to LIV, he has finished in the top 10 in 10 events. This season he finished 27th, 32nd and 41st, with only three of nine runs in the 60s. Before and immediately after his PGA win, Mickelson wasn’t arguing much.
In an attempt to turn things around, Mickelson lost a lot of weight. Although her waistline has expanded and contracted at various times over the years, it is noticeably slimmer than it has been in a very long time. For a 52-year-old man, he looks great.
“I have to be in shape so I can have a (swing) speed that allows me to compete,” Mickelson said. “And also for overall health. Everything I do is for the well-being, isn’t it? I want to be healthy and not have any problems or heart problems. I want to get fit and be able to enjoy life because it’s a really fun chapter right now for Amy and me.
This Masters is therefore, in a sense, the reintroduction of golf in the new Mickelson.
The question is whether this will help her regain the love and admiration that has clearly been lost over the past year.
Although Mickelson said the fans had “been great all week” with him, they didn’t have the same size and fervor that you would have found following him a few years ago. And he denied reports of awkwardness at Tuesday’s dinner for former champions, saying it was “a really special and fun night to attend”.
Perhaps Mickelson’s relationship with the wider world of professional golf will never be normal again. But you can imagine just being here on Thursday was perhaps the most normal thing he’s been involved with in a long time.
“I think it’s fun to be at the Masters every year, knowing that you’re going to be in this tournament, knowing that you’re going to be part of it, no matter how you play,” Mickelson said. “I feel like you can play this golf course without having to be perfect. As long as you put it in the right spots, you can kind of manage your game and shoot a number. I think that’s is why I always like to play here, it’s because I feel a little more relaxed, like I don’t need to be perfect.
It was certainly not Thursday.
After draining a tricky eight-footer for par on the first hole, he sent his tee shot on the second par-5 well to the right of the fairway bunker and into a spectator area where he didn’t have many options. .
So, in a typical Mickelson move, he picked one few would expect: a driver he wanted to keep under the tree branches and put back into play. But Mickelson couldn’t avoid all the foliage and the ball headed to another customer area across the fairway. He still had ups and downs for the first of his six birdies.
But, also typical of Mickelson, there were mind-numbing mistakes. On the No. 3, he attempted to jump over and run a short approach 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 on the left on the 11th, then missed a 10-footer for bogey. Then after a good birdie on the 15, he took a terrible swing on the par-3 16 and went well left of his target in the pond.
“I hit a lot of good shots today and was lucky to shoot a low round,” he said. “But that’s the problem I’ve faced is I’m going to make two swings and it costs me four shots on 11 and 16. I just have to keep working to get it out. I’m hitting enough good ones shots to pull good numbers, and I’m having fun playing, and I’m having fun hitting the shots again and driving well.
“You just have to be a little more specific on one or two swings because in the big leagues the penalty for a miss is so severe.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.