America laps it up as Mickelson embodies spirit of Ballesteros

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The Independent Online

Watching Phil Mickelson play golf is like listening to Forrest Gump looking for the meaning of life in a box of chocolates: "You never know what you're gonna get."

So it is perhaps appropriate this week that Mickelson seems to be channelling the spirit of Seve Ballesteros. Mickelson served paella at the Champions' dinner and paid tribute to his ailing hero. "I looked up to him as a kid, loved the way he played and was drawn in by his charisma. And he didn't let me down." Seve would relate to Mickelson's relationship with the fans and his orienteering route to the flags that, for the second round, were tucked away in tougher spots on Augusta's devilishly slippery greens.

In the first round, Mickelson hit only four fairways and was 99th and dead last in driving accuracy. But he rescued himself, like two-time champion Seve used to, seeing shapes in his imagination to bend shots around, under and over branches to rescue par or sneak a birdie with his mercurial short-game, by chipping and putting his way to a two-under-par 70.

Mickelson headed to the range on Thursday as dusk fell at Augusta. He did not appear to be working on anything other than thrashing seven bells out of his bag of balls.

He brought that tactic onto the course yesterday and it worked. He hammered a drive down the par-five second. His ball kicked off the down-slope of the hill and came to rest at about 350 yards. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open champion, was 110 yards further back in Mickelson's wake. It set up a tap-in birdie. But, just as it seemed his driver was now behaving, his normally infallible short-game began to stutter. After another booming drive at the third, his approach spun back off the front of the green and his chip left him an eight-foot putt to save par. He missed, shook his head, and grinned that goofy grin of his in frustration. At the fifth, he pulled out his trademark flop shot to get him out of trouble. It misfired. Bogey. Then his tee shot at the par-three sixth flew through the back of the green and again he failed to get up and down.

Then all parts of Mickelson's game suddenly clicked and he went on a run of three birdies in four holes. Huge drive to the bottom of the hill at the seventh. Arcing three-wood from out of the pine needles at the eighth. High looping banana fade around the corner at the 10th. Seve would have been proud. His enormous army of fans lapped it up. They were crammed five-deep along the fairways applauding him all day long whether he bagged a birdie, bogey or par. "We love you, Phil," squealed one female voice, speaking for the multitude of women who wish they were his wife, Amy. She was following her man wearing an electric blue dress (she wore the dress; Phil was sporting cricket trousers). "Win it, Phil! Back-to-back, baby," yelled a Southern gentleman before stuffing a stogie back inside his chops. He was cradling a tower of plastic Masters beakers. It is safe to assume he probably hadn't been sipping iced tea.

There is a roped-off funnel for players to take the 100-yard hike uphill from the ninth green to the 10th tee. Mickelson was worshipped the entire way. It was his personal coronation. A kid held out his right fist and Mickelson paused to do that one-potato, two-potato thing. Sheer class. The kid will probably never wash it again. Amy looked on. Forget Prince William and Kate Middleton, Americans have their own royal family in Phil and Amy.

Off went Mickelson lolloping down the hill, shoulders rocking, feet splayed in the 10 to 2 position. He looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street. His fans followed his every move down into Amen Corner and around the back nine. Crunching through the pine straw and stomping on pine cones, the noise sounded like a thousands bowls of Rice Krispies just after the milk has been poured.

Mickelson finished playing more like Nick Faldo than Seve with seven consecutive pars for an even-par 72 to remain two under par and just off the pace. "There were six chances, up-and-downs that I normally would get. And I missed a few four or five-footers," Mickelson said. "But these next two days are my favourite of the year – the weekend of the Masters. There's nothing better than playing here and to be in a position where a good round in the mid-60s can make up a lot of ground. I was able to do it last year on Saturday, and I'm going to have to make a good run this year, too."

In the words of Led Zeppelin, it's "Good Times Bad Times" for Mickelson at the Masters. It was ever thus with Lefty. But the Augusta patrons love him all the same.