AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Phil Mickelson will never receive the sort of adulation that once shadowed his every step.
Too many missteps along the way.
But give Lefty credit. He sure LIVened things up Sunday afternoon at the Masters.
Already the oldest major champion in golf history, the 52-year-old Mickelson made an impressive run at a fourth green jacket.
The fans were a bit timid in their response, even after he drained a 15-foot birdie putt at the final hole for a 7-under 65 — the best score anyone posted on a brisk Easter afternoon.
Yet there were definite signs of warming toward the guy who led golf into an ugly civil war.
Mickelson has never backed down from his decision to sign up with LIV Golf, eagerly accepting a generational amount of wealth from the Saudi-backed tour, even while acknowledging it came with all sorts of sportswashing baggage.
He wound up being the unlikely standard-bearer for the rebel league’s first major showdown with the PGA Tour, though he didn’t want to look at it that way.
“Separate. Separate. They are separate issues,” Mickelson insisted. “Golf and the professional golf ecosystem and how that’s been handled throughout my career, two totally separate things.”
The established organization is still on top after LIV’s biggest weapon, Brooks Koepka, melted down over the marathon of a 30-hole day.
Mickelson preferred to focus on the two factions finding some common ground at this hallowed course in eastern Georgia. He surely knows there were plenty of folks who would’ve been pleased if invitations had not gone out to the 18 LIV players who received them.
“I’m very appreciative that we’re here, that we are able to play in the majors,” Mickelson said. “And I thought it was exciting that this tournament rose above it all to have the best players in the world here and lost all the pettiness.”
Koepka headed out to the seventh hole not long after sunrise to complete his third round, buffeted by a four-stroke lead but weighed down by the enormous expectations of the upstart tour.
You just knew that LIV CEO and Commissioner Greg Norman was eager to crow over a Masters victory by one of his guys, something he never managed himself.
The Shark will have to wait a bit longer, at least until the PGA Championship next month.
By the time Koepka finally trudged off the 18th green for the second time, some 11 hours after his day began, Jon Rahm was the guy being sized up for the green jacket. An excruciating stretch of 22 consecutive holes without a birdie was the LIV star’s undoing.
But lo and behold, here came Mickelson to restore a bit of LIV pride.
Never mind that his game and image had been in total freefall since his age-defying triumph at the 2021 PGA Championship. Suddenly, at a course he knows so well, he rediscovered his swagger.
Unlike his LIV colleague, Mickelson had no trouble making birdies. He buried eight of them over 18 holes to become the oldest player in Masters history to finish so high on the leaderboard.
Mickelson’s 8-under 280 left him tied for the runner-up spot with Koepka, four strokes behind Rahm. Raymond Floyd had been the oldest to finish second at the Masters, some three years younger than Lefty when he accomplished the feat in 1992.
“No matter the outcome, I had so much fun today,” said Mickelson, who finished a couple of hours before Rahm tapped in his final putt. “I’m grateful to be a part of this tournament and to be here competing and then to play well, it means a lot.”
A year ago, Mickelson didn’t even make it to Magnolia Lane.
Facing an enormous backlash after he called the Saudis “scary (expletives)” but said he’d be willing to do business with them anyway, he skipped the Masters and essentially cut himself off from the golfing world.
Even when he returned to the course as an LIV player, captaining a team goofily known as the “HyFlyers,” he appeared to have forgotten all the skills that made him one of the game’s greatest players.
But on the practice range, he was increasingly encouraged by the shots he was making. He blamed his poor scores on a lack of concentration, insisting that a few bad swings kept ruining his rounds, making his scores look far worse than they really were.
We’ve all heard those sort of excuses before from struggling golfers, but Mickelson’s performance over four days at Augusta National fulfilled his optimism.
With a body that hasn’t been ravaged by the sort of injuries that are shortening Tiger Woods’ career, Mickelson believes he has a few more years to compete against the best players in the world — even those who are nearly half his age, like the 28-year-old Rahm.
Mickelson also points to LIV, with its 54-hole tournaments, no cuts and team competition, as giving him even more motivation to perform at a high level. He unabashedly wore the “HyFlyers” logo on his cap, shirt and bag through all four rounds in Augusta.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” Mickelson said. “I wanted something different for a lot of reasons, and I’m getting a lot out of it because having a team environment — when I was in high school and college golf — it elevated my game.
“That’s what this is doing for me at LIV. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it’s been awesome for me, and I love it.”
While the LIV tour has been ridiculed for its weak fields and seemingly over-the-hill stars, its players performed admirably at the Masters.
Half of the top six came from the breakaway tour, with Mickelson and Koepka joined by Patrick Reed. Twelve LIV players made the cut.
Mickelson looks forward to more head-to-head clashes.
There’s room in the game, he insisted, for both tours.
“This tournament isn’t about what tour you play from,” he said. “That’s what the game of golf should be. There’s always going to be and should always be a place for historical events like this, but it’s OK to have a little bit of difference and variety in the game of golf.”
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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