AUGUSTA, Ga. — On the bubble. A bad place to be. But that’s where Phil Mickelson was. “Looking at the cut line,” he said.
And then off the bubble and under it and looking at a weekend without golf.
Looking at a Masters where he had two terrible holes—two triple bogeys—and an awful hole—a double-bogey.
Looking at a Masters where for only the second time in 22 attempts he will not be playing on the weekend, missing the cut by a shot.
Looking at a year without a victory, anywhere.
Looking at a future, his 44th birthday only two months away, full of questions. If not for the game of golf—reeling from the loss, temporarily at least, of Tiger Woods—then definitely for Phil.
He was going to save this Masters for television. He and Rory McIlroy. No Tiger, out with back surgery, but Phil, a three-time champion here, and Rory, a winner of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, were going to keep the viewers involved.
Yet instead of fighting for the lead, Mickelson was fighting for the weekend. That’s what he conceded Friday after a 73, his second over-par round in two days. A four-over 76 Thursday. A one-over 73 Friday. A total of five-over 149.
“I’m fighting for the weekend,” he said grimly after leaving the 18th green. Oh, was he ever. And he lost.
They’ll be holding the last two rounds of the 2014 Masters without Tiger and without Phil. It couldn’t happen, but it did happen.
Mickelson’s young. At the same time he’s old. Last summer, telling us he never thought it possible, Mickelson won the British Open. There have been no victories since.
There hasn’t even been a top-10 finish in any of his last 10 tournaments including this Masters, the first time since he turned pro in 1992 Phil’s played that many without ending up in the top 10.
He had a tie for 12th at the Shell Houston Open last week, and a 14th at the HSBC Champions in November. Twice he’s withdrawn, from his hometown Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, and two weeks ago from the Valero Texas Open. Once he missed a cut.
Now he missed again in this 78th Masters.
“I’m nervous,” he told us Tuesday in the interview room. “I’m nervous about this week because I always like coming into this week with a win. I like coming into this week being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on.”
He’s America’s second-most famous golfer, “Philly the Mick,” as nicknamed by a tabloid when he took the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, across the Hudson River from New York City. He wasn’t Tiger. He isn’t Tiger. But he’s won 42 tournaments, five of them majors. He smiles and waves at the crowd, which Tiger almost never does.
There were few smiles Friday at Augusta National, however. Or Thursday. Two holes each day did him in, cost him strokes and cost him smiles. Cost him the last two days of the tournament.
On Thursday, he had a triple-bogey seven on the seventh, chipping and putting his way to disaster. Friday his doom came at the infamous 155-yard 12th, a hole some have called the hardest par three in golf.
The green is fronted by Rae’s Creek, and most of the disasters are caused by balls into the water. Miguel Angel Jimenez, briefly in the lead, plunked one in on Thursday and took a double-bogey five. Within minutes of Jimenez, defending champ Adam Scott, having been elevated to the top of the leaderboard, plunked one in and also took a double-bogey five.
Normalcy. Splish, splash. What Mickelson did Friday was beyond the norm.
His tee shot landed in the front bunker. He blasted over the green to another bunker. He blasted back over the green again into the front bunker. After finding the green, he two-putted for a six, a triple.
“What I was nervous about,” he confided, “was having a hole (Thursday) like seven, a hole like 12 today, where I go along making pars, putting the ball in the right spot and you just get in a bad situation.
“And I end up—instead of one sliding, two or three are going away. That’s the kind of stuff when you’re playing tournament golf and you’re mentally sharp you don’t do. And that’s the kind of stuff I seem to be doing right now.”
That’s the kind of stuff that makes you wonder whether he’s tumbled from his place on golf’s summit. The decline can be rapid. Last year Mickelson was sixth on Tour in strokes gained putting. He could yank the drives every which way, as he’s always done, but somehow he got the ball in the hole, which is all that matters.
Now he’s down in the 70s in strokes gained putting. Now he’s groping and searching and giving himself and giving us a reason to wonder if his best days are behind him. Now he’s missing the cut in the first major of the year.
“I didn’t play great, I didn’t play bad,” was Mickelson’s assessment of his 73. “I just had one bad hole, and I keep making these triples. They’re tough to overcome.”
They’re impossible to overcome. They leave a golfer, any golfer including a great one such as Phil Mickelson, hanging on and hoping he hangs in. But he couldn’t.
“Probably yeah,” was his response when asked if he could imagine watching the final two rounds on television.
“It’s an exciting tournament. I probably will. It’s kind of my...would be my kind of punishment.”
Punishment of the worst kind.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, is covering his 150th major golf championship. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.