- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There used to be a PGA Tour pro named Phil Mickelson who never met a pin he wouldn't shoot at. He never settled for a par out of a tight spot when he could swashbuckle his way to a birdie.
That old Mickelson won more than 20 PGA Tour events, and he was exciting.
"(Since) I came out on Tour, I have not ever spent much time in driving the ball in the fairway," Mickelson said. "I've always been trying to hit the ball hard and make as many birdies as possible."
But when the conditions got punishing, and the margin for error lessened, Mickelson could buckle his swash right into trouble. He pulled off some great rescues in his day, creating shots that the 10-handicap eye couldn't see. But to have a cliffhanger, first you have to nearly fall off the cliff.
Now comes the Masters, and there's this guy who looks like Mickelson, who lopes down the fairway like Mickelson, whose face dimples up like Mickelson's. But this guy hits it down the middle. He hits it on the green. And if he doesn't make a putt, he takes his par and goes to the next tee.
This guy leads the field in greens in regulation (41 of 54). And he's in the top 10 in driving accuracy (31 of 42).
The answer is obvious: Someone kidnapped the real Phil Mickelson and replaced him with Fred Funk.
Whoever he is, he's tied for the 54-hole lead of the Masters with Chris DiMarco at 6-under 210.
Mickelson birdied three of the first eight holes Saturday, then made 10 consecutive pars. He has played 32 consecutive holes without a bogey. In three rounds, he has made only two bogeys and one double bogey.
"It's just a much easier game keeping it in play," Mickelson said. With all mock seriousness, he added, "I wish somebody would have told me this earlier. It's just so much easier."
In truth, of course, this Mickelson has been playing this way all year. It's the reason he has seven top-10s, including one victory, in eight starts. It's the reason he came into Augusta leading the Tour money list ($2,318,600).
The explanation given by both Mickelson and his swing coach, Rick Smith, is that the 33-year-old has not become conservative. He has mastered his swing, and thus his distance control, so well that he can be more precise.
"It's hard to manage your game when you don't know where the ball is going," said Smith.
"See, here's the difference. I don't feel like I'm playing conservative," Mickelson said. "I really don't. I just feel the difference is, I'm in play. I'm not trying shots out of the trees on 16 at Bay Hill going for a par 5. I'm going for the par 5 from the fairway."
He can say he's the same Phil all he wants. At the 500-yard 15th, Mickelson missed the fairway. As he stood in the rough, his sister Tina, a teaching pro in San Diego, and his wife Amy stood in the gallery trying to send telepathic messages to Phil and his caddy, Jim (Bones) MacKay.
"We knew he want to go for it," Tina said. "We were hoping his caddy would veto him. When we saw him punch it out, I thought, 'Who's that?' "
Mickelson brought up his second shot on No. 6 where the pin was on a crest on the back left corner of the green. He was off the green. The old Phil would have pulled the L-wedge out and tried to make the perfect shot.
"I would end up off the green and I would be fighting for bogey," he said.
Instead, he putted it, understanding he wouldn't get closer than 18 feet.
"I accepted my bogey," Mickelson said. As almost an afterthought, he added, "Now, I just so happened to make the putt, and it was a great putt to make."
In Mickelson's view, he doesn't have to attempt the low-percentage chance. The way he's hitting it, there's another opportunity on the next hole. He will not miss waking up on Sunday in Augusta, anxious about whether his driver would behave or whether his irons will fly high and soft enough. He can afford to be patient because his game is so good.
One night this week in the home Mickelson is renting, he and Amy challenged each other to a ping-pong match.
"She lost three games in a row," Tina said of Amy, "and she said, 'Doggone, his patience is transcending into his ping-pong game.' She was really counting on him to go for a shot and miss it."
Masters Sunday is upon us, and Mickelson shares the lead. Anyone who knows the difference between Eldrick and Elvis knows that Mickelson has never won a major. Not even Mickelson knew that this is the first time he will ever begin the final round of a major in the lead.
"I feel like I've had so many chances to win," Mickelson said. "I can't believe that I haven't been in the lead."
In 2001-02, Mickelson came close to winning four majors. Three of them he lost to Tiger Woods. Someone asked him how it felt to be tied for the lead, and to have Woods nine strokes back, tied for 20th.
"Well, it doesn't suck, I'll say that," Mickelson said.
We're going to miss the old Mickelson, the one who was never far away from a birdie or a rally-killing bogey. The new one is providing thrills of a different sort -- those that lead to the history books.
"I do know," Mickelson said Saturday evening, "if I'm fortunate enough to come through and win that green jacket tomorrow, you'll be seeing my dumb mug here every year for the rest of my life."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.
With more control in his game, Phil Mickelson was almost unrecognizable Saturday.