- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - There was a time around here when Phil Mickelson’s nerves were stretched so tight, you could bounce a quarter off ‘em and have it land in Atlanta.

That was exactly 10 years, five majors and three green jackets ago. He arrived that week 0 for 42 in the tournaments that matter and left as one of the most contented men on the planet. Back at the scene of that first major win for his interview session Tuesday, Mickelson was charming and so much the master of his domain you half-expected him to wade into the gathering of reporters and pull that same quarter out from behind someone’s ear.

Now 43, Lefty was at ease, deftly tucking many of those reporters’ first names into his answers and lavishing praise on the conditions at Augusta National and even long-time rival Tiger Woods, who will miss his first Masters in 20 years while recovering from back surgery.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson said, unbidden.

Then again, he could afford to be gracious. Mickelson sat down at the podium fresh off a big win in one of those high-stakes practice rounds for which he’s become notorious

“Curious on practice rounds,” a reporter said. “Watching former champions going out with younger players, you’ve done that in the past, and the mentoring that goes on in the early part of this week. Just curious the extent that you do that now as a past champion.”

“Yeah, mentoring or wagering,” Mickelson said to laughter. “Either way you want to look at it.

“Rickie Fowler and I were partners today and he went on a tear. He shot 30 the front nine; he eagled 13, he birdied 17 and 18, threw another one on 15, I think. Just played remarkable golf. It was fun,” Mickelson added, “to have him as my partner.”

“Speaking of wagering,” another reporter asked a few moments later, “I head you lost a dollar to a patron behind the sixth green; couldn’t get up and down. Is that right?”

Mickelson tried not to blush.

“He was mouthing off about ‘hard shot, get this up and down, no chance, blah, blah, blah.’ And it wasn’t that hard a shot, and I should have gotten it up and down and I did hit a good shot. I had a 7-footer straight uphill and I missed it, and I had to pay him,” he said. “That’s what happens when you lose.”

“Do you always carry small bills?” came the follow-up. “Did he have change?”

“I had to get a five from a caddie,” Mickelson replied, trying harder not to blush. “I don’t.”

The longer he goes on spinning tales that are insightful or funny - and sometimes both - the more Mickelson sounds like one of the game’s elder statesmen. But unlike Jack Nicklaus, 74, and Arnold Palmer, 84, who reminisced about his last major win 50 years ago, Mickelson is still a very real threat to win every time he tees it up.

He’s still ranked No. 5 in the world, but hasn’t had a top-10 finish this season and his last win was last summer’s almost magical victory at the British Open. More problematic, perhaps, Mickelson has been hobbled by back and muscle injuries for months, not pronouncing himself “100 percent’ healthy until last week. He even admitted to some nerves “because I always like coming into this week with a win. … being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on.”

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