Mickelson now favored to win

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There's been a changing of the guard at Augusta National Golf Club, but it's not what everyone thinks.

Mickelson  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Mickelson

With all eyes on a host of young players poised to supplant Tiger Woods as the next generation of green-jacketed superstar, it's an older gent who has usurped the throne as Augusta's reigning untouchable.

This is Phil Mickelson's tournament now. Check the betting line if you doubt that.

For the first time since Woods romped in 1997, he's not the odds-on favorite to win the Masters. This should not be a news flash based on the way he's played the last 12 months, but it is significant nonetheless.

"I don't see how Tiger can ever not be favored here just like I was always favored here even when I wasn't playing my best," said six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus.

No offense to the greatest champion who ever lived, but that's old-school thinking. The talk about Woods winning as many Masters as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer combined has long subsided as the four-time champ carries a five-year losing streak at Augusta.

One peer in the field Tweeted that Woods wasn't even top-five caliber this week. The world's new No. 1 golfer, Martin Kaymer, is more envious of Phil than Tiger here.

"I think Phil," said Kaymer when asked who he thinks is the more dominant Augusta player. "Because he's lefthanded - I wish I could play the other way around and I could cut the ball. I think especially after last week, the way he won, he shot I think 16under on the weekend. So I think he has good chances again."

The principal players naturally brushed off the favorite label.

"Doesn't matter," said Woods. "You still have to play the golf tournament, right? ... So just got to go out there and play and see where it adds up."

But it does matter. The changeover was tangible when the two guys who've combined to win half of the last 14 Masters faced the media in consecutive interviews on Tuesday afternoon.

Mickelson was characteristically comfortable, working the room and cracking jokes about the club chairman, the world's No. 1 player and himself like he owned the podium.

Woods followed with a defensive performance, dodging loaded jabs and sounding more like a player trying to convince himself that he's still as good as he ever was.

Winning the Masters is as much about confidence as it is about skill, and Phil was more full of it Tuesday.

"I certainly enjoy this place and have enjoyed it and have felt great on this golf course even before I won here," Mickelson said. "I felt like it was a course I could play well on, and really enjoy playing it every year. It's something that I've just come to love with all my heart and appreciate how great this place is.

"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. All of the feelings come back when I drive down Magnolia Lane. It just reinvigorates my passion for the game."

Woods as well said that walking out and seeing the golf course "fires me up," but the weight of his successive near-misses has dulled the forcefulness of his statements.

Is his best golf behind him?

"No," Woods said.

Does he feel ready to win this week?

"Mm-hmm."

What part of your game is ready?

"Everything."

Mickelson, however, has the weight of evidence in his favor. He's the one with the 3-1 edge in Masters wins the last seven years. He's the one who swings from his heels at Augusta like a man with nothing to lose. He's the one who went 16-under last weekend in his Houston tune-up and vaulted past Woods in the world rankings for the first time since the week before the 1997 Masters.

"It would really mean a lot if he was No. 1 at the time when I passed him, yeah that would be really cool," said Mickelson. "But he and I both have some work to do on our games as well as our performances in these tournaments to move back up there, and then it would mean a lot."

In 2002 after Woods won his third Masters in six years, it would have been ludicrous to consider that the golf course might be more suited to anyone else. You certainly would have been institutionalized for suggesting it was Mickelson, who despite four third-place finishes and seven top-10s in a span of nine Masters starts had still never won a major.

But since the course changes that were dubbed "Tiger-proofing" at the time, Mickelson is the one who has found the better formula for winning at Augusta while it's more often been Woods collecting unsatisfactory high finishes and bemoaning a balky putter.

"I just want to be a part of that action and let the chips fall where they may," Woods said. "I just need to be part of that action. That's how you win those tournaments is you just need to be there."

Woods is still here. If any course in the world can reawaken some semblance of his former magic, it's Augusta. He did finish fourth a year ago under seemingly impossible circumstances.

If Mickelson wasn't five years older than Woods, he would seem the better bet to close in on Nicklaus' record of six green jackets.

That might be stretching it a bit. But for the short-term at least, he's the better bet at the place formerly owned by Tiger Woods.


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