Mickelson joins Condoleezza Rice

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson didn't waste any time setting up a game with one of Augusta National's newest and most high-profile members, playing a practice round on Sunday with Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State.

Rice and Darla Moore, amid much fanfare, became the first two women members last year at Augusta National, which this week will stage the Masters for the 77th time.

"It was awesome," said Mickelson, 42, a three-time Masters champion who very much embraced the opportunity to play with Rice. He warmed up next to her on the driving range, walked off the first tee with his arm around her, then praised her putting afterward -- and noted that she holed a 40-footer on the 18th green.

"She's one of my favorite people," Mickelson said. "She's got the greatest personality and attitude, and she's so much fun to be around. She's so knowledgeable about world affairs. It's just incredible. It's a great experience."

Mickelson, who has been at Augusta practicing since Friday, also played with his agent, Steve Loy, and another Augusta National member, rotating partners every six holes.

"On the greens ... she's a phenomenal putter," Mickelson said of Rice, 58, who served under President George W. Bush as the country's 66th Secretary of State.

"As soon as I saw she was a member, I called her to work up a game, just like I did Arnold [Palmer] back in the day as an amateur. She's just one of my favorite people to be around," Mickelson said.

After completing the round, Rice only said she had a good time, then went to greet Tiger Woods, who was beginning a practice round at the first tee along with Steve Stricker.

Rice hugged Woods, spoke to him for a few moments, then headed for the clubhouse -- one that had been welcome only to women guests since the club's inception in 1932.

It was 10 years ago that Augusta National endured protests after club chairman William "Hootie" Johnson famously told activist Martha Burke and the world that he would not be pressured "at the point of a bayonet" over the issue of the all-male membership policy.

Johnson went so far as to dismiss Augusta's corporate sponsors for two years -- forgoing any commercials during the U.S. television broadcasts -- so they would not have to endure any public protests. The club staged the tournament and spent the millions of dollars it takes to run it without commercial help.

When Billy Payne took over as chairman in 2006, the issue had not gone away. Last spring, when it became known that longtime Augusta supporter IBM had a woman CEO, Virginia Rometty, who had not been granted membership, Payne was subjected to questions about the policy again.

Then on a Monday last year, Augusta came out with the unprecedented announcement of members being added to the roster -- the first two women.

"This is a joyous occasion," Payne said in a statement at the time.

And Sunday was a pretty nice day for Rice to enjoy her new perks of membership. It is unclear how many times she has been to the club or has even played the course since it opened in October for the season. The club will close for the summer late next month.

Augusta members are allowed to play the course on Sunday prior to Masters week, and a number of them were on the grounds, including NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who chatted with Woods on the putting green.

Woods, who is ranked No. 1 in the world and will attempt to win his 15th major championship this week and first since 2008, said he came to Augusta a week ago for an Easter Sunday practice round. He is coming off a victory two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the 77th of his PGA Tour career and third this year.

Upon arriving Sunday, Woods practiced for 20 minutes, went to the putting green, then teed off with Stricker and U.S. Public Links champion T.J. Vogel.

Woods has not won the Masters since 2005, when he captured the fourth of his green jackets.

A number of tournament participants got a jump on practice Sunday, when spectators were not permitted on the grounds.

Past Masters winners Ben Crenshaw, Larry Mize, Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Zach Johnson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Vijay Singh were either practicing or playing. Defending champion Bubba Watson played a practice round with his wife, Angie.

Others on the grounds were reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell, Adam Scott, Hunter Mahan, Henrik Stenson, Jason Day and Bo Van Pelt.

But Mickelson was clearly in the most high-profile group.

Jokingly asked if he had to refrain from asking Rice too many questions, Mickelson smiled.

"She kept asking me about the course," he said. "And I kept asking her about countries. It was really fun. And she really can putt."