Mickelson, Els reunited at Augusta National
Two years ago, their epic Sunday back-nine duel at Augusta National Golf Club ended with Mickelson leaping and Els standing on the practice green looking as if someone had just run over his puppy. For the two rounds in which they have been devilishly paired together in the 70th Masters Tournament, they have stayed within one shot of each other for 35 of 36 holes.
They each finished with 36-hole totals of 2-under 142. They are tied for fifth, four strokes behind leader Chad Campbell. Els shot his second consecutive 71, with a double-bogey on the 10th hole leaving a mark on an otherwise glorious round. Mickelson added a 72 to his opening 70. And if not for Fred Couples' birdie at No. 17, they would be playing together on Saturday.
Instead, they will reverse the order of the pairings from 2004. Mickelson will play in the group in front of Els.
Mickelson may be from California and Els from South Africa, but they are cut from the same bolt of cloth -- big hitters with deft short games and crowd-pleasing smiles. Walking with them Friday was like auditing a class in Masters 101. No, make that a graduate-level seminar. Augusta National always demands a level of local knowledge unnecessary at any regular PGA Tour stop. But with the wind gusting for most of the day Friday, and the course being more unforgiving than the IRS on April 18th, the wisdom that comes from playing in a combined 27 Masters kept Els and Mickelson in contention as others fell aside.
"You don't want to get too overaggressive here at the moment, the way the golf course is playing," Els said after his round. "I can see a lot of backtracking happening over the weekend at some stages in this tournament this year."
Bobby Jones designed Augusta National with the idea of forcing the guys chasing the green jacket to make a choice. In his flowery, eloquent prose, he wrote, "The course is not intended so much to punish severely the wayward shot as to reward adequately the stroke played with skill -- and judgment."
Jones loved the push and pull of risk-reward. That's why the par-5s on the back nine -- Nos. 13 and No. 15 -- used to be referred to as par-four-and-a-halves. Technology made that push and pull obsolete for a time. But through 36 holes, it's clear that Hootie Johnson's backhoes have restored risk in its standing against reward.
In fact, for a while there, it looked as if the powers that be decided to move the 2006 U.S. Open from Winged Foot to Augusta National without telling anyone.
"That's the way I want to play this week," Els said. "I said to Ricci [Roberts, his caddie], 'I want to play the way you play in U.S. Opens, get the ball in play.' Not always hammer your drive out there. That little bit of rough, it's rough now. You've got to be careful how the ball comes out there."
Only once did Els falter. After making the turn in 33, and climbing within one shot of the lead at 4 under, Els quickly retreated. Looking for a draw off the 10th tee, he snapped it hard left, and the ball hit a tree and stopped. A fairway wood left him 30 yards short of the green. With the pin back right, Els tried to feather his pitch so that he wouldn't go over the green. He did too good a job. It stopped on the front fringe. He made a double-bogey.
"It's a fine line," Els said. "When I did get a little defensive on 10, it really bit me in the behind. ... You can't get defensive. If you play away from the flag, that's not saying it's defensive. That's being careful and playing the percentages."
At No. 1 and No. 18, Els teed off with a three-wood to make sure he kept the ball in play. On the 13th hole, Els sacrificed length for accuracy, hitting his tee shot some 50 yards behind Mickelson and Shingo Katayama. Laying off paid off. Els rifled his second shot 15 feet above the hole and two-putted for birdie.
Mickelson alternated four birdies with four bogeys, one indication that he stayed a little closer to that fine line than Els did. His most spectacular birdie came at the eighth hole, the 570-yard uphill par-5 that the Mickelson and Els approached just as the wind came strong at their back.
Mickelson, using the longer-hitting of his two drivers, wouldn't say how far he hit the ball. It was a drive that Mickelson hit at No. 11 in 1998 that convinced Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson that the course was becoming obsolete.
"Phil Mickelson hit a big driver, power fade down there and had a pitching wedge to the green," Johnson said Wednesday. "The hole wasn't intended to play like that. I believe [Ben] Hogan is quoted as saying, 'If you ever see me on that green, you know I've missed the shot.' Well, if Hogan was hitting a damn pitching wedge, he wouldn't have been to the right of the green. He'd have been within three feet of the cup."
Suffice it to say that Mickelson hit it to the far line of the crosswalk that is placed high enough up the incline of the fairway to be out of play. A rules official granted Mickelson relief. His second shot, one eyewitness said, backed up when it hit the green.
"You know what?" Mickelson replied when asked about his yardage. "I'm going to refrain from answering that question, because if I do, the tee box is going to be back even further."
After the laughter in the press room subsided, Mickelson said, "It was just a good shot and it was downwind, so it played the shortest it could ever play. ... I don't want that one getting out to Hootie, either."
Mickelson may have let it out on No. 8 because he felt so good about the previous two holes, prime example of 12-foot par-saving putts that a less experienced hand at The Masters never would have made.
"When I hit a poor shot on six long right, I remember '95 [when] I made double-bogey from that spot and it knocked me out of the tournament," Mickelson said. Instead of chipping up the hill and down an incline to a close pin, Mickelson putted from off the green.
That's how it works at The Masters. Experience pays. Six former champions are tied for 17th or better, within six strokes of Campbell. Els is no former champion, as Mickelson made sure of, but he is one of three major winners in that same group.
There's always the chance that Els and Mickelson will reunite on Sunday. Without question, that would get people talking.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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