Not many people expected vintage Phil Mickelson to show up at the 2023 Masters.
Since leaving the PGA Tour for Saudi-funded LIV Golf last spring, Mickelson has been treated like an afterthought and a punchline. For a superstar player, who is one of the most accomplished competitors in golf history, it’s been a shocking two-year downfall from Mickelson’s triumphant PGA Championship win in 2021.
But a stunning final-round 65 at Augusta National rocketed Lefty up the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon and secured him an unlikely second-place finish. Completing the best Sunday round he’s ever had at the Masters, and the best final round of anyone in the field, Mickelson finished with eight birdies to only one bogey. The masterful showcase looked like a throwback version of the man fitted for three Green Jackets in his past.
Mickelson and playing partner Jordan Spieth put together a remarkable group effort during the fourth round on Sunday afternoon. Combining for 17 birdies and a group best-ball score of 58, Mickelson and Spieth electrified Augusta patrons before the lead groups could even get rolling.
Picking up steam on the back nine, Mickelson poured in five birdies over his final seven holes. The round crescendoed with a crowd-pleasing birdie on 18 to set Mickelson with the best score in the clubhouse. With leader Jon Rahm dipping to -10 with the full back nine left to play, it looked like Mickelson could linger atop the leaderboard if Amen Corner could work its voodoo on another late-event leader.
Rahm ultimately pulled away for his first Masters victory in convincing fashion. But it was truly shocking to see the 52-year-old Mickelson in the mix for the final-round lead at a major after starting the round at -1 just hours before.
Entering the week, the prospect of Mickelson even being competitive was an unlikely scenario. Since defecting to LIV last year, Mickelson missed all three cuts of events that featured them – including his only two major appearances in 2022. Lefty’s highest total finish since the 2021 PGA Championship win was eighth place at a LIV event outside of Chicago last September.
Mickelson’s completely unreliable recent stretch led oddsmakers to make him a 300/1 play entering the Masters this week. Most books also had Tiger Woods beating his former rival in a head-to-head matchup. Mickelson even received the most bets to miss the cut at the MGM Sportsbook.
Ultimately, Mickelson let his play do the talking. After an unusual Masters Champions Dinner in which the previously-gregarious Mickelson barely spoke, the signs of vintage Lefty came alive during the first two rounds at Augusta.
Playing competitive golf was one thing. This week also saw Mickelson performing with the dramatic flair and showmanship that made him one of the most famous golfers to ever live. Mickelson took driver off the deck. He played his driver off of pine straw to make birdie. Lefty even switched things up and punched a shot against a tree right handed to avoid a massive number.
Given the tepid response to LIV Golf over its first full year, the majority of golf fans won’t care if Mickelson has success on the newcomer tour. Brooks Koepka already won two LIV events since last fall — yet his early Masters lead and tie for second place with Mickelson at the Masters also stunned the golf community despite a previous track record of four majors of his own. There’s also the subsection of fans who will never forgive Phil for his move to LIV – both for the Saudi connections and for the unsavory way in which Mickelson went about the switch.
But if the majors can get this version of Mickelson once or twice a year – dropping bombs, taking wild risks, smiling and pumping his fist – then golf is a much more entertaining game with Lefty at his best.