AUGUSTA, Ga. -- To frame a question about the numerous changes to Augusta National Golf Club, it was mentioned to Phil Mickelson that he will be playing in his 17th Masters this week.
If that seems hard to believe to those who have followed his Hall of Fame career, Mickelson understood.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson own multiple green jackets for winning the Masters. How about they do golf fans a favor and play in the final group together?
"If you're asking me if I feel old ... at times I do," said Mickelson, who turns 39 in June. "I do look back and remember how different a lot of holes have played, how different putts would break years ago, some changes in the greens.
"And now where the golf course is today, from where it was in '95 when I played here, it's remarkable, the changes. All of the trees that have been added, how much longer the course is. But either way, year in and year out, it's always a great test for this great championship."
It is impossible to ignore Mickelson, even with all the other intriguing story lines that are present: Tiger Woods' first major since knee surgery, Padraig Harrington's quest for the Paddy Slam, the three promising teenagers in the field, Greg Norman's return to the Masters after seven years.
Then there is Mickelson, who, don't forget, has won two of the past five Masters and before that stretch had six consecutive top-12 finishes, including three straight thirds.
But which Phil will show up this week?
He started the year with a missed cut, and then two tournaments in which he placed no better than 42nd. Then he won at Riviera, made it through a couple of rounds at the Match Play Championship and won at Doral. He moved to second in the world and within striking distance of Tiger Woods' No. 1 ranking.
Mickelson sounded almost giddy in Florida about his prospects for the Masters. He had visited Augusta National early and spoke of how excited he was about the way he was hitting his driver.
And then last week in Houston, he shot 77-76 to miss the cut. Huh? It should be noted that Mickelson played during the worst of Thursday's windy conditions that eventually caused the postponement of play. And he's basically treating it as an aberration.
"I feel about as good about my game as I have," Mickelson said. "I know that last week wasn't great, and I am just not going to worry about that. I've been playing well heading in and made some dumb mistakes and hopefully I won't make those same mistakes this week."
The dream scenario, of course, would be to see Mickelson and Woods paired in the final twosome Sunday.
While they have had several duels over the years, the only time they have been paired in the final group of a major on Sunday came at the 2001 Masters -- when Woods polished off his Tiger Slam.
We might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, but ...
"I would love to be in the same group as him and walk down together on Sunday if we are in the final group," Mickelson said. "I don't want to be third off.
"Hopefully we will both play well. For that to happen, we have a lot of golf, 54 holes where we have to play great golf. I don't think that's a question for him. I think he's playing some great golf and I think he's going to be there.
"I think I have been playing some of the best golf of my career and I believe I am going to be there, too. Hopefully there will be some other key players like Padraig Harrington who is going for his third major championship in a row, which is an incredible feat. Hopefully we will have a core of top players on the leaderboard."
An emotional night
The annual Champions Dinner is always a highlight of the week for those fortunate enough to attend. And that would be only past winners of the tournament. As defending champion, Trevor Immelman was the host Tuesday night.
But the evening had an emotional tone as Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal, who won the Masters in 1994 and 1999, read a letter from countryman Seve Ballesteros, the 1980 and 1983 champion who was unable to attend as he recovers from several surgeries to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain.
Masters chairman Billy Payne was an invited guest and relayed a few tidbits during his annual pre-tournament media session.
"Jose Maria Olazabal read a letter from Seve to his fellow champions," Payne said. "It was very emotional, it was very loving, and as it was read, you could feel in the air the reciprocation from his friends and former champions going all the way back to Spain. It was an amazing, amazing moment."
A look at this week's venueOne of the most famous courses in the world, Augusta National was founded in the early 1930s with the first Masters Tournament played in 1934 -- although it was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament for the first five years.
The tournament quickly became popular among players because of amateur Bobby Jones' relationship with the event and the beauty and intrigue of the course.
That course continues to amaze while also being the subject of considerable debate. It centers around the lack of drama in recent Masters, and whether some 420 yards in added length -- along with new tee locations, new trees, more rough -- have taken away from the excitement.
Last year, Immelman shot a final-round 75 in blustery conditions to become just the second Masters champion to shoot over par in the final round. Two years prior, in cold, windy conditions, Zach Johnson was the winner despite never going for a par-5 in two shots throughout the week.
"Criticism hurts a little bit," Masters chairman Billy Payne said. "And not as much to me as the entirety of the enterprise, the employees, the staff, the members.
"It's like when you go to a piano recital of one of your granddaughters and you hear somebody say, 'Boy, that's the worst kid I've ever seen.' It hurts your feelings.
"But I am hoping that the consequence of good weather and further thinking about the course and the strategic approach to the course through time will eliminate most of that criticism."
Asked if he would be open to receiving comments from players directly, Payne quipped: "I think they have more subtle ways of expressing their opinions, both the favorable ones and the ones that could perhaps be critical.
"But I am aware of them, and I start thinking about them and, you know & continue to blame the weather."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies and bogeys
1. Brittany Lincicome. Her eagle at the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco is believed to be the first time a player has ever won a major championship -- men's or women's -- by eagling the 72nd hole.
2. Mission Hills Country Club. You have to love the risk/reward of a par-5 hole over water that is reachable in 2. It provided incredible drama for the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
3. Paul Casey. The talented Englishman finally won his first PGA Tour event, against a strong field at the Shell Houston Open.
1. Fred Couples. It was great to see him on the leaderboard in Houston, but three straight bogeys to finish the tournament was tough to watch. Couples was the outright leader before that sad ending.
2. Sergio Garcia. A final-round 81 in Houston. Ouch.
3. J.B. Holmes. The long hitter did well to get into the Houston playoff, but when he didn't win, he was the only Ryder Cup member from either side who failed to make the Masters.
There has been a lot of conjecture about the lack of fireworks in recent years at Augusta National. A toughened course and difficult weather conditions have led to the conclusion that the Masters isn't as exciting. Perhaps.
But it is interesting to note that Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and Gary Player in 1978 were the only Masters champions to win by shooting 30 on the back nine on Sunday. Phil Mickelson shot 31 in 2004. So it's not like everybody was surging to the clubhouse in years gone by.
The last winner who made an eagle during the final round was Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994. And until Zach Johnson in 2007, no Masters winner had come from outside the final pairing since Nick Faldo in 1989.
Notables• The last Masters winner to make an eagle in any round of the tournament was Vijay Singh in the first round in 2000.
• Singh created one of the biggest stirs during the practice rounds when he aced the par-3 16th hole -- after skipping his tee shot across the water. It has become a Masters tradition to skip balls onto the green, but Singh saw his run up onto the surface and cruise into the hole.
• For Tiger Woods to win? He's never had a double-bogey in any of his four victories, and never ranked worse than second in greens in regulation for the tournament.
• Woods also has never broken 70 in the opening round of 12 Masters starts as a pro. His 68 during last year's third round was his first score in the 60s since he shot a 65 during the third round in 2005.
"I'm having really bad nerves at the moment, seriously. All of the crowds. I was nervous, really shaking. And I wasn't swinging properly. I've never seen that [kind of] crowd out there. I'm still nervous."
-- U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee, on his first Masters.
Catching up with last year's champ Trevor Immelman has relished his time as Masters champion, and he enjoyed a return visit to Augusta National in February to soak in the atmosphere. But it has not translated to great golf.
After winning the Masters last year, Immelman lost in a playoff in Memphis, then didn't post another top-10 until a tie for 10th at the Tour Championship. This year, his best finish is a tie for 19th at the Transitions Championship.
But he had done nothing before last year's Masters, either, having come back from offseason surgery to remove a benign tumor from his rib cage. And his best finish of the year heading into Augusta was a tie for 40th.
Shell Houston Open picks
Birdie Buster: In three PGA Tour starts this year, Casey has a victory and a second-place finish, including his playoff win Sunday at the Shell Houston Open. He also won the Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour and has moved to No. 6 in the world.
Horse for the Course: Tiger Woods. Not only has Tiger won the Masters four times, but in each of the past three years he finished third, second and second. He has never missed a cut as a pro, and his worst finish is a tie for 22nd.
Super Sleeper: Nick Watney. Last year, in his first Masters appearance, Watney tied for 11th. This year, he has a victory at the Buick, a second at Doral, a tie for 12th at the Transitions and a tie for fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Winner: Phil Mickelson. The winner of two of the past five Masters has won twice this year and has gained considerable confidence in his driver. This is the week he puts Winged Foot in his past.