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IN THE DYING moments of the Masters' third round a distinguished gent dressed all in black labored toward Augusta National's 18th green. "This hill feels a lot steeper right now," said Phil Mickelson Sr., leaning on his daughter-in-law Amy for support. On the other side of the ropes his namesake was making his own dispirited trudge. During a wild Masters moving day, the younger Mickelson was the most riveting story, flying up and down the leader board with golf that was by turns inspired, unlucky and, in the end, fatal. Well-positioned to make a run at his third green jacket, Mickelson was sabotaged by a balky putter and some overly aggressive play that recalled the Old Phil, circa 2003. When it was finally, mercifully over, Mickelson's three-over 75 had not only blown him out of the tournament but also revealed some larger ills in his game. Afterward, even he seemed stunned by how quickly this Masters had slipped away. "I don't know what happened," Mickelson said. "I felt as if I was going to have a good round today. I don't know what to say." � Phil's folly was all the more surprising given the bogeyless 68 he had shot the day before to surge into a tie for third, three strokes back of leader Trevor Immelman. One of the key moments of the round was his second shot at the par-5 13th, which drifted toward Rae's Creek but somehow Velcroed on the grassy bank, allowing Mickelson to get up and down and turn a bogey into a birdie. This stroke of good fortune recalled his very first hole of the tournament, when he overcooked a recovery shot from well behind the green that surely would have rolled all the way off the front of the putting surface had the ball not banged into the flagstick and disappeared for an unlikely birdie. Mickelson called it a two- or three-stroke swing and couldn't resist citing these lucky shots as omens.
The third round began with promise too, as Mickelson made an easy birdie at the par-5 2nd hole and saved par on number 3 with a 15-footer. At that point he was six under par and only two off the lead, and his swollen army of fans was delirious.
The momentum began to shift on the par-3 6th, where Mickelson went after a sucker pin set on a tiny shelf on the back of the green. He missed on the short side, the kind of mistake you don't expect from a man playing in his 16th Masters. Mickelson's 12-footer for par hung on the lip but wouldn't fall. That missed putt was symbolic of Phil's struggles on the greens, a malaise that has lasted for more than two months, encompassing three previous tournaments at which he failed to finish better than 20th. Those close to Mickelson are calling this the worst putting slump of his career, and the numbers back it up. He came into the Masters ranked 72nd on the PGA Tour in putting average. He usually resides among the top 10. On putts of 10 to 15 feet he ranks 111th, and from 15 to 20 he's 142nd.
Much has been made of Mickelson's new dedication to fitness, and he has continued to work hard with Butch Harmon to groove the swing changes they began a year ago. Throw in three kids, a burgeoning course-design business and two new big-ticket corporate deals to an already stacked portfolio, and something had to give. "His putting has not been as sharp this year because of a lack of attention," says Dave Pelz, Mickelson's short-game coach. "He practiced very hard this week, but this is not an easy place to find it." Mickelson struggled with his speed during the first round but finally seemed to be getting comfortable on Friday. Then Saturday's rain slowed the greens, throwing "a big monkey wrench in our plans," said Pelz. Throughout the round Mickelson seemed spooked on the greens, especially after what transpired on the par-5 8th hole.
The first sign that the golf gods were not on Mickelson's side came on his third shot, when his approach from about 80 yards clanged off the flagstick and trickled all the way back to the front fringe. He then blasted his 25-foot birdie try four feet above the hole, and the comebacker barely grazed the cup for a dispiriting bogey. "That was unlucky," Mickelson said. "It would have been a tap-in birdie. But still, I shouldn't have three-putted. It may have cost me a shot, but it shouldn't have cost me two."
In fact, it may have cost him more than that. "He got mad after that," said Pelz, "and I think that affected him for a few holes."
Mickelson left short a good birdie chance on 9 and made bogey out of the trees on 10. After dumping his tee shot on 12 into the front bunker, he suffered his fourth bogey in seven holes, pushing him to three over on his round. That should have been the end of him, but Lefty is nothing if not resilient. Textbook birdies at 13 and 14 ensued, and again he was within shouting distance of the leaders. A pushed drive on the par-5 15th forced him to lay up, and for his third shot he played a wedge past the pin and expertly sucked it back to five feet. As Mickelson was walking to the green, everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: When Phil makes this putt, he'll be five under, same as Tiger Woods. Par in, and on Sunday he and Woods would share a boffo pairing. But Mickelson made a tentative stroke and his birdie attempt never scared the hole, one of the most egregious of his 33 putts.
He walked off the green shaking his head incessantly. On Saturday the par-3 16th featured its toughest pin placement, back-right atop a vertiginous slope, only a few paces in front of a bunker. No one in their right mind aims for that pin, but a flustered Mickelson couldn't resist. "He wants to win majors again so badly," says Pelz, a nod to his pupil's three triumphs from 2004 to '06. "That makes it tough to be patient."
Phil jacked his tee shot into the back-right bunker, thus violating one of the basic rules of Augusta National: "You can't miss it right there, and I know that," he said. "You simply have to hit it left and try to make par." Instead he three-putted again, for double bogey. Game over.
During the final round Mickelson shot 72 to sneak into a tie for fifth. After winning two out of three Masters, he has failed to contend on Sunday at the last two. His next major, the U.S. Open, will mark the two-year anniversary of his meltdown at Winged Foot, a career-altering double bogey on the 72nd hole from which he has not yet fully recovered. (Perversely, this Masters was his best finish in a major since then.) The day after the Open the onetime boy wonder turns 38. Mickelson may yet get back to being the dominant player he was a few years ago, but after his brutal Saturday at Augusta, climbing that hill got a little tougher.