Rabalais: Phil Mickelson tends to take flight when it’s Masters time

Associated Press photo by Chris Carlson -- Dustin Johnson, left, walks with Phil Mickelson on the third fairway during a practice round for the Masters Tuesday in Augusta, Ga.
Associated Press photo by Chris Carlson -- Dustin Johnson, left, walks with Phil Mickelson on the third fairway during a practice round for the Masters Tuesday in Augusta, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil believes he can fly.

Or at least he did, when 10 years ago he made that, ahem, leap after sinking the winning putt to win the Masters, his first major after an 0-for-42 career of trying.

“I jumped so high I almost hit lightning that day,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “Unfortunately the photographers, they just didn’t time it right. I felt like that was an unfair assessment of that leap, because I probably could have dunked a basketball if need be.”

As he spoke, Mickelson smirked that Phil smirk, the one that often keeps you guessing whether he’s telling the truth or putting you on. The one that has led so many media types to label Mickelson a fake and a phony.

If he is, Mickelson is a world-class actor as well as a golfer.

Mickelson is the guy who came to play in the 2006 Zurich Classic and donated all of his $81,720 in winnings to Hurricane Katrina relief — and winnings from one tournament the next five years. This after donating $250,000 to foundations run by Louisiana touring pros David Toms, Hal Sutton and Kelly Gibson.

Mickelson is the guy who has been known to run over to a concession stand at tournaments and tell the workers everyone’s order in line is on him.

Mickelson is also the guy who grabbed the driver instead of a 3-wood on the 18th tee in the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open and let his ego lose the tournament for him. He’s also the guy who backtracked on his public statements about being in a persecuted, overtaxed minority of uber-earners in his native California.

You can’t have Mickelson in a neat, tidy package. He’s mercurial, maddening, unpredictable melange, brilliant and disappointing and ultimately, utterly human.

Now his smirk and his balky back and that shaggy shock of hair sticking out from under his visor are back at Augusta, and it hasn’t been a classic run up for Phil. His best finish so far is his tie for 12th last week in Houston. He has withdrawn twice in San Diego and San Antonio with back issues and a pulled abdominal muscle, respectively.

At 43 (Phil will be 44 in June), Mickelson maybe needed to find a bit of a Fountain of Youth on Augusta National’s hallowed grounds. And in his Phil, scarcely believable way, he makes you think he will.

“It’s a magical place to begin with,” he said. “But for me personally, the feeling that comes over me as I drive down Magnolia Lane is I don’t have to play perfect to play well here, because I can recover from mistakes here. You always have a shot. You always have a swing if you hit a bad shot. You have a chance to salvage your par. You have a chance to let your short game save it for you.

“And if I do hit a number of good shots, I’m able to make birdies. This course has always been a course that I felt comfortable on, and I’ve played some of my best golf here.”

He’s played better than anyone not named Jack, Arnie or Tiger. Only those three men have won more green jackets than Mickelson. Only Nicklaus (15) and Woods (11) have more top-five finishes than Mickelson’s 10.

One more major — Phil has five after winning last July’s British Open with a 66 at Muirfield that was one of the greatest final rounds ever — will tie Mickelson with Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. He said he wasn’t thinking about the joy of six, but the pleasure of being a four-time Masters winner is on his mind.

“I do know that Arnold (Palmer) and Tiger have four jackets and I have three,” Mickelson said. “I know Jack has six, but nothing I can do about that right now. I’m just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are.”

His biggest goal remains finally winning the U.S. Open after six second-place finishes, including one last June at Merion behind Justin Rose. That would make him just the sixth man to win all four majors (Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen are the others).

Mickelson was laid low by that U.S. Open defeat in June, his wife Amy saying he basically laid in bed for two days. But he recovered in time to win the British Open, the one major that always seemed the least suited to his game.

Now he’s back in Augusta, having scuffled through his least successful pre-Masters run in ages.

Searching for the real Phil Mickelson? Maybe he’s about to slip on a green jacket for the fourth time.

Maybe he can fly after all.