AUGUSTA, Ga. The man in the green jacket raved about Phil Mickelson's record at the Masters seven times in the top 10, no worse than seventh since 1999. Mickelson saw what was coming and beat everyone to the punch.
''But no wins,'' he said.
Then, he reached over and playfully tugged at the sleeve of the Augusta National member sitting next to him.
''I want what you have,'' he said. ''I want one of these. Those are nice.''
Getting one has proved to be a major challenge for Mickelson, who comes into the Masters riding a streak 0-for-42 in the majors as a professional that has come to define an otherwise impeccable career.
No one questions his awesome ability. Mickelson has won 22 times on the PGA Tour, more than any other active player besides Tiger Woods. He is long off the tee and has a short game that even Woods says is the best in golf. But his lack of a major became even more glaring last year when another Lefty Mike Weir of Canada showed the mettle of major champions by making clutch putts down the stretch to win the Masters. What about Phil?
''I think he's going to win a major championship,'' Mark O'Meara said. ''And I think it's going to happen soon.''
Mickelson's hopes are higher than ever this year, and for good reason. Coming off his worst season on the PGA Tour so bad that one golf publication failed to list him among the top 30 players going into the year Mickelson looks stronger than ever.
He refused to start practicing until Jan. 1 to emphasize that last year was behind him, then came out of the blocks by winning the Bob Hope Classic and getting into Sunday contention every time he has played. He has toned down his swing, costing him some 15 yards off the tee that he could afford to lose in exchange for playing out of the fairway. He is controlling his irons with three-quarter shots instead of swinging from the heels.
''Phil, he's probably played the best out of the whole lot,'' Ernie Els said.
This might be the place for Mickelson to prove it.
Mickelson is so serious about this year's Masters that he came to Augusta National last week for two practice rounds. He identified his problems the last three years all of them third-place finishes by working with coaches Rick Smith and Dave Pelz.
''I certainly feel like I have a very good chance,'' Mickelson said. ''I've played very consistently, which is something I didn't do last year. I have a lot more confidence that I'll be there come the weekend. I'm playing well enough to get into contention without having to do anything extraordinary.''
It all starts to unfold Thursday in a Masters that is far different from a year ago.
The storms have passed not only the rain that turned the course into a soft and soggy mess, but the cloud of controversy over the all-male membership at Augusta National.
''I really think the American public is ready for us to talk about golf,'' club chairman Hootie Johnson said Wednesday when asked about Martha Burk's campaign to get a woman into the club.
The course has never been this firm and fast since officials beefed it up two years ago by adding some 300 yards. The last time it was this crusty and dry was in 1999. Legend has it the sun used to shine under players' feet because their spikes couldn't penetrate the turf.
''This is what we've been looking for,'' Johnson said. ''I couldn't predict a score, but I think it will be pretty tough out there if the course stays in the same condition.''
One reason so many people consider Mickelson a strong favorite is because Woods, a three-time champion, doesn't appear to be on top of his game.
''I don't know if he's not playing well now or he just is waiting for the majors,'' Vijay Singh said. ''I just speak for the rest of the guys. I think our play has gone a step higher, and that's closed the gap if there was one.''
Mickelson looks poised to close the gaping hole in his resume.
Only two other players in PGA Tour history have won more than Mickelson without capturing a major Harry ''Lighthorse'' Cooper (31 victories) and MacDonald Smith (24).
Mickelson is undeniably the best player to have never won a major, but there is some question whether he can be considered a great player without one.
''A guy like Mickelson, you would like to think he's a great player,'' said Els, a two-time U.S. Open and British Open champion. ''At the end of the day, you look at major championships. That's how you really gauge yourself.''
The gap between Mickelson and Woods was made clear by the work of their publicists.
Woods' camp puts out a package of his career results, with a cover photo of Woods posing with an array of major championship trophies and a headline that says, ''How He Did It.''
Mickelson's people put out two pages of his major results that showed how he hasn't.
There is no shame in Mickelson having not won a major. He is only 33, just coming into this prime. Woods once noted that Ben Hogan was 35 when he won his first major. Hogan ended his career with nine majors, ''and he had an accident in there somewhere,'' Woods said.
The surprise is that Mickelson has never even led after three rounds in a major. His two closest calls were the 1999 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par on the last hole; and 2001 PGA Championship, when David Toms made a 12-footer for par on the 18th.
''I don't judge myself harshly in the fact I haven't won one,'' Mickelson said. ''If I thought it was a negative that I had not won, I think I would dread those events more than I would look forward to them. I just get so excited to be here. I can't wait for Thursday to start, and hopefully have another chance at breaking through.''
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