AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson was back at Augusta National on Tuesday and there were times when it felt as if nothing had changed.
He strode purposefully through the back nine during a practice round with LIV Golf buddies Dustin Johnson, Talor Gooch and Harold Varner III. He split the fairway on the 18th with his tee shot, while Gooch and Varner played from the trees, and stuck his approach to about 10 feet. Polite applause greeted him at every turn.
Things aren't the same for three-time Masters champion, though.
Ever since making some controversial remarks about LIV Golf, where Mickelson is now a star attraction, he has been the fulcrum in a golf civil war pitting the PGA Tour against the Saudi-backed breakaway league. And the furor surrounding him was so great at this time a year ago that Mickelson made the difficult decision to skip what he called “my favorite week.”
It was the first time since he was recovering from a broken leg in 1994 that Mickelson missed the Masters.
“Being here and being a part of it, and being able to experience this great place and what it means is so fun," he said, "because as a kid you grow up dreaming about being a part of this. You dream about winning it, being in contention, and then when you actually are a pro and you're playing here, you're like, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this every year.’
“That’s the coolest thing about having won here,” Mickelson added, “is that you’re a part of this event and part of the history."
Mickelson spent Tuesday fondly recalling his amateur days, when he spent nights in the Crow's Nest, a quaint-if-somewhat spartan accommodation on the second floor of the Augusta National clubhouse. And he was looking forward to Tuesday night's champions dinner, when reigning winner Scottie Scheffler joins one of the most exclusive clubs in sports.
On the menu: cheeseburger sliders and firecracker shrimp, tortilla soup, Texas ribeye and blackened redfish, a variety of side dishes and, to top it off, chocolate chip cookies served on a warm skillet with milk-and-cookies ice cream.
“I always fight the weight demons and that cookie, that's going to be tough for me to pass,” Mickelson said, “but I got to do it.”
Also on the menu: the potential for some uncomfortable moments.
Six former champions are now members of the Saudi circuit, and plenty of words have been exchanged between the two factions. The latest barbs came from 1992 champion Fred Couples, who is decidedly pro-PGA Tour and said during a PGA Tour Champions breakfast last month that Mickelson was a “nutbag” and Sergio Garcia was “a clown.”
"Fred and I are longtime friends and we’ve had a lot of great experiences in the game of golf," said Mickelson, who wore the logo of his LIV Golf team, HyFlyers GC, on his grey shirt and black cap during Tuesday's practice round.
“I think the world of him,” Mickelson said, “and I hope we have a chance to have more great experiences with him as well.”
Couples sounded open to it Monday, though he stopped short of apologizing for any of his comments. And while he wasn't grouped with Mickelson for the first two rounds — Couples will go off with Russell Henley and Alex Noren on Thursday about four hours before Mickelson tees off with Tom Hoge and Si Woo Kim — Couples doesn't mind playing with him, either.
“I would love to be paired with Phil. I mean, he’s one of the best players that ever played,” Couples said. “He loves this place as much as I do, and if we did, we’d look at each other on the first hole and we’d have a good time.”
Mickelson is only two years removed from his triumph at Kiawah Island, when at age 50 he became the oldest major winner with his second PGA Championship. Yet his game is far from where it was or should be. Mickelson has broken 70 twice in nine rounds across three LIV Golf events, and his best finish is 27th in a field of just 48 players.
Still, Varner said after their practice round Tuesday, Mickelson seems “super engaged right now."
“I don't know if that's because it's Augusta,” Varner said.
Maybe it is.
Or more precisely, maybe it's being back at Augusta.
“I've got to be realistic. I haven't scored the way I want to,” Mickelson said before heading off to lunch, “but I do see a lot of positive signs. I'm going to try to just be patient, whether it's this week or soon, because things are about to click.”