Masters 2013: Phil Mickelson has a grip on Augusta National

Jamie Squire

You never know what rabbits Phil Mickelson may pull out of his visor, but you can be sure the three-time Masters champ will have a trick or two up his sleeve for Augusta.

Phil Mickelson may not be happy with a PGA Tour schedule change that threw off his pre-Masters routine, but the popular southpaw is reportedly enthralled with a new driver he may introduce at Augusta National this week. Add renewed self-assurance with his flat stick, and Mickelson could give tourney favorite Tiger Woods something to worry about come Sunday afternoon.

Mickelson enters the week with a win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and a T3 finish at last month’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. Despite a lackluster additional six tourneys, Phil always likes his chances at Augusta, where he’s recorded 13 top-10 finishes -- including three wins -- in the past 17 years.

So, too, do the guys who’ll be watching Mickelson all week from the ESPN TV broadcast booth.

“He's shown that Augusta is a different place. He gets motivated by it, he loves to play it,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange told reporters on a conference call last week. “I give a lot of weight to current form, except for Phil at Augusta. I think he'll always somehow fight and be around or in contention on the weekend because he likes the place.”

Strange downplayed the need for Mickelson to find the fairways off the tee (Exhibit A: Lefty’s stunning shot from the pine straw on No. 13 in 2010), though Lefty’s “Tarzan-y-ish” romps through the jungle last year may give even the golfer himself pause.

Mickelson knows that, but for that triple-bogey mishap in last year’s final round, he could have slipped into his fourth green jacket, or at least the playoff.

“It goes back to the fourth hole,” Mickelson told Augusta.com’s David Westin recently about the six he carded on the par-3 that knocked him out of contention. He finished two shots short of the 72-hole co-leaders Louis Oosthuizen and eventual winner Bubba Watson.

While a different driver would not have helped on the hole in question, perhaps the new big club will help fix some of the issues that have always plagued the directionally challenged Mickelson, who’s never been one to split the fairways on a regular basis. Ranked 164th in driving accuracy this season, he’s actually ahead of his tour average of past years, including a 188th finish in 2010, when he won his third Masters.

But you can pitch those stats into Rae's Creek when it comes to Phil at the Masters.

“He has less pressure on him because of the accuracy thing off the tee,” Strange said. “He has a little more room off most of the holes and he just seems to elevate his game and focus ... at Augusta.”

An inveterate tinkerer, Mickelson has made another change with a club that could have more impact on his game this week. This time, though, it’s not about a new flat stick, but about whether he’ll continue using a claw grip.

“I'm very comfortable. I love the touch that I have on the greens and I'm not abandoning one grip or the other,” he told reporters after posting a third-round 67 at the Shell Houston Open. “I love what the claw has done for me. It's put me in a more consistent address position.”

While Mickelson maneuvered his putter with a more conventional hand setup in Houston, he explained that the claw would help him get his Callaway HEX Chrome+ rolling more consistently if he were to struggle with his putter.

“If my hands continue . . . to get too far forward, I'll go back to the claw right away because it gets me right back in the position to address where I want to be, where the shaft is slightly more vertical and a soft forward press to start the stroke,” he said.

He was pleased with how he rolled the ball in Houston and believed his results would carry over into this week.

“I started to feel much better on the greens, getting a good touch, letting it feed in from the high side, which we'll have to do at Augusta, playing the maximum break,” he said. “I feel like it's getting better each day.”

A matter that likely demanded more of Mickelson’s mental energy than which clubs would make the final cut -- a driver or the two 3-woods he used in Houston (a Callaway X Hot 3Deep model off the tee)? -- was the change in his pre-Masters warmup. He was vociferous about not wanting to play last week’s Valero Texas Open because the course did not provide a suitable venue to prepare for Augusta.

“For me personally, I like playing a tournament that's similar to what we'll be playing,” Mickelson said during last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. “This year, having a windy, tight course isn't really conducive to getting ready for Augusta, and that makes it difficult for me personally, so I'll end up going to Augusta a few days early. . . . I've got to make some adjustments just because the tournaments that are the week before the majors are not helping us at all get ready.”

He reiterated his complaints two weeks ago.

“It's a very unusual situation here for me,” he said. “I usually like the play the week before. I haven't taken a week off before the Masters in, I don't know, couple decades, I think. . . . I'm going to have to learn how to do that, now that we're not really having tournaments conducive to getting ready for those events.”

To help with his scheduling dilemma, Mickelson took a cue from the way Jack Nicklaus readied himself for the majors.

“Nicklaus used to try to peak over the week before and over the weekend and then take a couple days off Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of the tournaments and try to build back into the tournament at Augusta," Mickelson said. "I'll have to take a page out of his book, because I'm not used to taking a week off before a major. It's not my preference.”

More Masters from SB Nation:

How all 94 players earned entry into the most exclusive major in golf

14-year old prodigy to tee it up at Augusta

Clarke's Masters week ends on Monday

Wozniacki will caddie for boyfriend Rory

Condi & Lefty practice at ANGC

Tiger the overwhelming favorite of oddsmakers

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