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Mickelson wakes up Augusta, in position for fourth green jacket

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He would hardly be the first kid to grow up with a golf club in hand, dreaming outrageous things about playing against the big boys, perhaps on the game's grandest stage, Augusta National.

Phil Mickelson is one of the few to actually fulfill it.

"It's a very special place that he used to watch people play when he was growing up," said his father, also named Phil, as he watched his son on Saturday. "He thought, 'Someday, I am going to play there, I want to be there, and I want to win there.

"It's a dream come true."

A serialized dream at that, with perhaps even more memories in the making.

Energized by the best back nine of his Masters career, Mickelson tossed in a series of crowd-quaking bombs with a 6-under 66 on Saturday to move within one shot of leader Peter Hanson, who will serve as his pairing partner in the final round.

2012 Masters

After sputtering to a 4-over start through 10 holes of his opening round, Mickelson kept clawing back until he posted a 6-under 30 on the second nine, torching the Alistair MacKenzie gem and letting the chorus of cheers wash over him like tidal waves had bombarded Rae's Creek.

"It was awwwwwwwwesome," he gushed.

Just like that remark, the final two hours was definitive Mickelson, putting him in position to win the jacket for the fourth time in nine years and match the victory total of Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.

It was a surreal scene that was very reminiscent to 2010, when he won his last Masters title and went eagle-eagle-birdie on the back nine of the third round to move into the final group with Lee Westwood. This time, after a day with comparatively few cheers, the fans came unglued as Mickelson, always a favorite son, started throwing Molotovs at flagsticks and eagles at cups.

After Mickelson hit an incredible, high-risk flop shot from a tight lie behind the 15th green to secure a birdie, he and sideman Jim Mackay walked to the 16th tee, floating on air at their favorite place yet again, the noise banging their eardrums like they were tampanis.

"It's cool, man," Mackay said. "It never gets old. It's the greatest event in sports. Where else would you want to be?"

The boss could not agree more.

"Having that opportunity to be in the final group here at the Masters on Sunday," Mickelson all but gushed, "it's the greatest feeling in professional golf."

The roars began to build on the 13th, the famous par-5, where Mickelson knocked his approach to 25 feet and rolled it in for an eagle. That was nothing compared to the trapeze act on the 15th, where he bombed a 5-iron 235 yards and over the back of the green.

He needed execute a do-or-die, full-swing flop shot with the 64-degree spatula he calls his sand wedge, and with a lake located a few feet behind the flag, executed it perfectly. He rolled in the five-footer for a birdie.

"As soon as you hear that [impact] noise -- you know, that noise you and I don't make -- you knew it was going to be OK," Mackay laughed. "I am not surprised by his ability to pull off shots that require a lot of creativity."

Neither is anyone who hasn't been in a coma for the past 20 years. His friend and former swing coach, Rick Smith, was in the crowd, walking with Phil's dad, as pandemonium ensued.

"He is the only guy in the field who can hit that shot," Smith said, admiringly.

Mickelson had one more jaw-dropper up his sleeve. After driving the ball down the treeline on the 18th, he hit what Mackay called "a low-rope 7-iron" from 198 yards that moved 30 yards sideways in the air and trundled up to 10 feet for a final birdie.

It was the last of the Mickelsonic Booms -- and happened only a few yards away from where he made a triple-bogey on the 10th hole Thursday to sky to 4 over.

"That was a long time ago," Mickelson laughed, reminded of his slow start.

With this guy, forever capable of finding the gas pedal and shoving it through the floor, that stumble was just a temporary setback.

"As you guys hear every year, he's inspired by this place, he knows he's got good mojo here and he knows that if he gets a little bit behind, with his length and knowledge of the course, he has a chance to catch up if he hits some shots and makes some putts," Mackay said.

There's more to it than that. Phil took his kids to the theme parks two weeks ago in Orlando, but this is his personal Disneyland.

"I don't know if there's a player on tour who loves Augusta more than Phil," said Hunter Mahan, who played the first two rounds with Lefty and is T6. "He loves everything about it -- you can tell, he puts his coat on when he gets here. He gets off the plane and the coat is on and he comes through the gates here.

"I think it's out of absolute, 100 percent respect and pride of being the champion here. No one loves this tournament more than Phil does."

Mackay got a reminder of that smell-the-azaleas sentiment after Mickelson hit that stellar recovery shot on the last hole Saturday.

"He has been coming here for a number of years," Mackay smiled, "and even walking up 18 after hitting that 7-iron shot, he said, 'Let's enjoy the walk.'"

The trip on Sunday could be even better.


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