One would think that after all these years Phil Mickelson would be too long in the tooth to get the jitters.
This is his 21st Masters but the first thing he wanted to say was that he was "a little bit nervous heading in".
Mickelson always likes to compete in the week before a major but this year a change in the PGA schedule left him without match practice in the 11 days running up to the tournament. "What I'm nervous about is just those first opening five or six holes, being mentally tuned in for them," he said. "It's always a challenge when you haven't been in competition to be really mentally focused and sharp."
Mickelson has bad associations from the last, and only other, time he had an empty week in the run-up, when he found himself "a few over through six" in the first round, and vowed never to repeat the experience again. But this year the late start to the Masters left him without a tournament to play in.
He could have entered the Texas Open in San Antonio but he reckoned the course there was too "tight and windy" to be much use as a warm-up. He preferred to head up to Augusta early, "to spend time on and around the greens, because that's so important". He managed to squeeze in a round with Augusta National's new female member Condoleezza Rice on Sunday and, all things considered, he looks pretty laid back, whatever he says.
So Mickelson will surely not sweat on the lack of match practice too much. One old friend asked him what he was grinning about. "Best week of the year, isn't it?" Mickelson replied. He has won the Green Jacket three times in the last 10 years and finished in the top three eight times, most recently last year, when he was in contention until he made a mess of the par-three 4th, cracking the ball into a metal railing on the grandstand and then trying to play his way out of the woods by flipping a wedge around to play right-handed. That scuppered his chances. He soon shrugged off the disappointment. "I don't want to say just that it was a failure, not winning, because it was still one of the greatest weeks I could have experienced."
He says that clanger did not haunt him in the same way as his defeat at the US Open at Winged Foot in 2006. "I actually played pretty flawless golf after that but just didn't get anything happening, I wasn't able to get that charge that's needed to move up the board."
Mickelson is in his element at Augusta, at ease on a course where he knows that "I don't have to play perfectly to play well here. I don't have to hit perfect shots to make pars." For him the thrill of the chase is half the fun. Just "to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies to try and win, that is the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience."
What makes the Masters so exciting, he says, is just "having an opportunity to win, playing the back nine with an opportunity. That's what is so enjoyable as a player." Chances are he will be in that position again come Sunday.
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