Phil Mickelson gives the thumbs-up to a girl to whom he gave a golf ball at… (Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images )
AUGUSTA, GA. — On a day when Augusta National needed no more magic, when the trees kept perfect posture, the sun glistened and the greens ran like Usain Bolt, the Magical Masters Man began pulling rabbits out of hats.
Phil Mickelson shot 66.
That wasn't the best score of the day. Sweden's Peter Hanson shot seven-under-par 65.
Nor did it get Mickelson the lead. Hanson had him by a stroke at nine under par.
But with due respect to Hanson and his marvelous round, Phil is Phil and this is the Masters and the only bigger story and emotional mover here might be Tiger Woods, had he made a run. But he was long gone, perhaps at the shop having repairs done to the clubs he has slammed and kicked this tournament, when Mickelson started running in birdie putts and sending the galleries into a frenzy.
Three of his four major titles have been achieved on the rolling hills and lightning greens of the Masters' Augusta National. He can't wait to get here every year, just to tell the press how much he loves coming. Then, having talked the talk, he usually walks the walk.
His longtime caddy Jim "Bones" Mackay says, "He is inspired by this place. It gives him good mojo."
Mickelson couldn't wait to get to the interview room afterward, so he said, "The greatest thing in the world is to be in the final group on Sunday in the Masters."
Mickelson will be in that coveted final group by virtue of a back nine of golf that even excited a man of his tenure.
"It was awesome," he said.
It started, after a front nine of missed opportunities, all pars and nary a hint that it was about to become Phil Time, with a birdie putt on No. 10. On television, the commentators were explaining how tough the pin placement was. Then Mickelson hit it to 15 feet and made the putt.
No. 11 is a 505-yard par four. Mickelson hit a nine-iron in close enough to two-put for par. Yes, nine-iron. That is not a typo.
On the triangle tip of Amen Corner, the par-three 12th, he sank a 15-footer for birdie. Next came the scenic and scary par-five 13th, which turns right to left alongside Rae's Creek and then necessitates, for those looking for an eagle, a second shot over the creek that turns in front of the green. Mickelson, who is always looking for an eagle, hit it to 30 feet and made the putt.
Mackay had a better description of Mickelson's shot to the green.
"He nuked it," the caddy said.
The grounds of Augusta National run downhill toward Rae's Creek. The gentle breezes that kept the temperatures in the mid-70s all day mostly blew uphill toward the main clubhouse and ninth and 18th finishing holes. When Mickelson's eagle putt dropped, it was about 5 p.m. The roar shook the valley, carried up the hill and whistled through the huge tree that shades the clubhouse.
There was little question what had happened. There are roars for birdies and aces and eagles, and there are roars for Tiger and Phil. The difference is unmistakable.
Soon, every Mickelson update on the big scoreboard at No. 18 brought new frenzy. It was like mini freight trains, rolling through the course.
On the par-five 15th, he missed the green to the high side and had a shot impossible to stop by all humans. Except Mickelson, who hit one of those looping flops that stopped five feet away for another birdie.
"That's a great example of why I put a 64-degree wedge in my bag on this course," he said.
He got himself into that bind by hitting his approach shot past his 235-yard target. With a five-iron. Again, that is not a typo.
"I got excited," Mickelson said.
That brought him to the dreaded 18th hole, an excruciating uphill par four that plays 465 yards, with a driving tunnel defined by trees about the width of the Santa Monica Freeway, westbound lanes only. After the tunnel, it turns left to right and really starts to go uphill.
Mickelson drove it right, just in the rough and under some trees, meaning he had to draw it way left to right to clear a trap and roll it to a back pin. He was 198 yards away. The target was a media viewing stand. Talk about motivation.
He took out a seven-iron, hooded it a bit, aimed at some balding heads, and carved it to within 18 feet, from where he made the birdie putt and triggered another frenzy.
"I didn't have to do anything special," Mickelson said, "just shut the face of a seven-iron."
There are nine players within six shots or fewer of Hanson's leading 207. But Hanson will likely be focused on one, his Sunday playing partner, Mickelson, who brings devotion and emotion from galleries like few others.
"The crowds are so much behind Phil," Hanson said. "They love him, and I understand why, the way he plays, when we see that lob shot on 15...."
Hanson played in his first Masters last year and missed the cut. His success in Europe got him on the 2010 Ryder Cup team in Wales. Guess who he ended up playing in the final-day singles?
"The day before we played," Hanson said, "he got the worst Ryder Cup record in the history of wins-losses. So he came out hungry and desperate to win. He started off with four birdies and killed me, 3 and 2."
Sunday at Augusta is not match play. Nor is it predictable, except that when Mickelson is in the mix, you can expect the unexpected and the left-handed guy to use those things in his hands like wands.