Lefty waxes poetic about Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The drive down Magnolia Lane has always been a special one for Phil Mickelson, something he talks about glowingly, a road to a better place.

But when he made that trek on Tuesday morning, Mickelson noticed something was amiss.

A violent storm overnight caused significant damage in the area, including an uprooted tree along the famous road into Augusta National.

"I was surprised that it wasn't replaced the first half hour," Mickelson joked. "I don't understand what happened. I think Chairman [Billy] Payne must have been sleeping.

"This place does it right and that drive ... I guess it has 60 magnolia trees now instead of 61, but it did not detract from the drive up."

Mickelson would likely know, as he's spent considerable time here in recent weeks.

Before the defending Masters champion returned to the club on Tuesday morning after winning the Shell Houston Open on Sunday, he had been here on two different trips, including three days last week prior to the Texas tournament.

Mickelson also came to Augusta National for practice sessions the week of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in early March.

"It gives me the opportunity to see the changes to the golf course, any type of subtle changes like we saw on greens 11 and 17 and make some adjustments," Mickelson said. "And also gives me a chance to hit the shots that I'm going to hit.

"More than that, though, when I drive down Magnolia Lane, I get re-energized with the game of golf ... I love it and have such passion for this game. When I come here it reminds me of that ... When I come back to Augusta National, I just remember how much I loved it as a kid, dreamt of playing the tour, dreamt of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament and being a part of it. All of the feelings come back when I drive down Magnolia Lane. It just reinvigorates my passion for the game."

And his prior visits could prove to be beneficial this week as Mickelson attempts to win a fourth green jacket.

Due to those overnight storms, temperatures were about 20 degrees cooler than Monday, although expected to return to warmer levels by the start of the tournament on Thursday.

For that reason, Mickelson decided to forego a practice round Tuesday. "I didn't see how playing today was going to benefit me given conditions were supposed to be so drastically different this week," he said.

Perhaps because he had nowhere to go, Mickelson was in a chatty, and humorous, mood.

For example.

• On the shot he played to the 13th green through the trees last year during the final round: "It was a 6-iron for crying out loud. It wasn't like I'm hitting 3-wood there. I had a huge margin for error."

• On why he didn't attempt the shot again during any practice rounds: "I didn't see the point. I've already done that."

• On if he feels empathy for Lee Westwood, having himself gone through a time when he struggled to win his first major championship: "Well, that was seven years ago. You need to let that go."

• On how the addition of rough at Augusta National has changed the course: "You know, we don't have rough here. We have first cut. Are you referring to the first cut?"

• On Jack Nicklaus' victory 25 years ago, when Mickelson was 15: "I was at home watching it on TV just like everybody else going nuts and it was an incredible thing to watch ... It was one of the most exciting tournaments I've ever seen, if not the most exciting."

• On honoring Seve Ballesteros -- who is unable to attend due to ongoing treatment for a brain tumor -- at Tuesday night's champions dinner by serving a Spanish dish: "At 17 he was the guy I wanted to play with. I got into my first PGA Tour event, San Diego, and was able to get a practice round with him ... He was the classiest gentleman to me ... He was a guy I looked up to as a kid, watched the way he played and loved the way he played and was drawn in by his charisma and he didn't let me down at all. I just want to let him know that we are thinking of him."

And so it went. Mickelson tackled all manner of subjects, and it is clear he feels good about his game after making 18 birdies over the weekend and shooting 20 under par to win his 39th PGA Tour title.

A victory here would give him 40 overall, a fourth green jacket and a fifth major championship.

"This week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest," he said. "I've been working out for it. I saw a back specialist last night and continue to see just to make sure that my back hangs in there. It feels terrific.

"I've been working on it for some time to make sure it's strong enough to withstand the type of rotational speed that I'm going to be trying to apply this week, because I believe it's a big advantage if you can move it out there."

To that end, Mickelson plans to put another driver in the bag, one with a longer shaft that has just 5.9 degrees of loft. He said he would likely use it on the first, second and eighth holes in an effort to carry problematic bunkers.

"It just goes about 15 to 20 yards farther," he said.

For the first time since before the 1997 Masters, Mickelson is ahead of Tiger Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking. He begins the week at No. 3, with a chance to go to No. 1, depending on various circumstances.

Having won three of the last seven Masters, Mickelson finds himself a favorite, a distinction that probably means very little but nonetheless can't hurt.

"I certainly enjoy this place and have enjoyed it and have felt great on this golf course even before I won here," he said. "I felt like this was a course I could play well on, and really enjoy playing it every year.

"It's something that I've just come to love with all my heart and appreciate how special this place is to the game of golf."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.