Phil Mickelson surged past Tiger Woods in the world rankings for the first time in 14 years to become the bookies’ favourite to win his fourth Masters title this week.
The exciting left-hander followed his course record-equalling 63 with a closing 65 to win the Shell Houston Open by three shots from Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank on 19 under par - the biggest margin of victory on the PGA Tour this year - and leap from sixth to third in the world.
“It feel really good for me to have played well and to gain some momentum heading into next week,” Mickelson said. “It feels a lot like ‘06 in that I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together. By that I mean, I’ve been saying all year I’m playing well but I’m not getting the scores out of it, and I’m having just kind of a lapse of focus.
“And it was even evident today on a couple shots, a basic easy chip shot on 8 that I flubbed and 3-putting 15. Those little types of lack of concentration. I’ve got to continue to work on that.”
The left-hander’s first win as a 40 year old - his 39th PGA victory - came 51 weeks after his third Masters title, making him the 7-1 favourite to retain his crown at Augusta National ahead of Woods, who slipped to seventh in the world, his worst world ranking since the week before his 1997 Masters breakthrough.
Padraig Harrington - who tied for eighth in Houston after a closing 70 - believes that the secret to Mickelson’s stunning Masters success is his insistence that Augusta suits his game down to the ground.
And Mickelson confessed that practicing at Augusta early last week sent him to Houston with an extra spring in his step after a troubled start to the season.
“That’s fair statement,” Mickelson said. “It reenergizes me every time I go there. I get excited with the game and fall in love with the game again and again. It reminds me how much I dreamt as a kid of playing there, of competing and winning Majors and winning golf tournaments.
“Every time I walk the grounds now, having one won there, I’ve looked backed about some shots I’ve hit or some players in the past hit. It creates an excitement level for the game of golf.”
Eight strokes off the pace after a second successive 70, Harrington would love to replicate Mickelson’s attitude to Augusta National.
“Everybody looks for an edge and Phil will swear that because he is a left hander that the golf course suits him no end and he has got a big advantage,” Harrington said recently. “Whether he does or he doesn’t he is convincing himself he does. He feels the course plays to his short game. It plays to his imagination. It plays to his ability.
“If he does hit a wild tee shot, he can recover. When you hit it in the trees at Augusta, you get an opportunity a lot of times to play from there. You might have to play a great shot, but you can play.
“It’s the old Gary player one - whatever greens you turn up to play, they are your favourite. Phil has convinced himself that Augusta is the most suitable golf course in the world for him.”
Harrington loves Augusta too but admits that he worries a lot about what can go wrong. While he wants to play with less fear, he knows that is easier said that done on a track where disaster is lurks on every hole.
Confessing that he needs to play with more freedom, Harrington said: “Sometimes I might be too overawed by Augusta. It is very intimidating. At times, this golf course is a tough as can be.
“But if you take the attitude that everybody else must be feeling the same thing, then it makes it easier. I’d like to show a little less fear.
“It is not that I am laying up or being defensive, but there isn’t a hole you an stand on and relax. Even the birdie holes can be turned into bogey holes pretty quickly.”
Harrington has no plans to change his attitude but he admits that he’d like to take a leaf out of Mickelson’s book and play a more swashbuckling game.
He said: “I don’t think I give it too much respect but I would definitely like to play with a little bit more freedom, which I don’t know is possible or if I need to either.
“I haven’t been too far away a couple of times so I will play the same way as that and try and just let it happen.”
Mickelson scorched into form at the right time in Texas over the weekend, blasting a course record, nine under par 63 to go into last night’s final round in Houston Open tied for the lead with Scott Verplank.
He also took over from Woods as the 7/1 favourite to don the green jacket once more and confessed that he is finding form just in the nick of time after some recent struggles.
With three Masters wins in his last seven starts, Mickelson’s confidence is on the rise as he bids to become the first player to successfully defend the green jacket since Woods in 2002.
After carding a 63 that left him tied with Scott Verplank starting last night’s final round, Mickelson said: “It doesn’t hurt. I mean I knew that I was close gamewise but I hadn’t been putting together the score. To get a good round like this means a lot.
“To be in the final group, have an opportunity to win, I really enjoy that opportunity, that challenge, and I think it’s good for me to be in that position heading into next week, too.”
The American revealed in Texas that he is planning to use two drivers at Augusta this week - one for accuracy and one for distance.
But Harrington is hoping he can challenge the four time major winner after three good rounds left him just four shots behind going into last night’s final round
Tied for the lead with Mickelson midway through Saturday’s third round, Harrington finished with three straight bogeys for a 70 but insisted he’s never been happier with his swing.
Delighted to put his game under pressure in Houston, Harrington said: “’I’ve achieved a lot of closure in recent months regarding the swing changes I was working on, and I am at peace with that side of things.
“The result is that I am a lot happier about where my game is at than any time over the last 20 years.”