Mickelson electrifies Augusta crowd

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Turns out we had it all wrong.

The Masters story that really matters has always been a gimme putt away from our faces -- except we didn't realize it until the roars started caroming off Augusta National's pines Saturday like sonic booms.

The story isn't Tiger Woods and all the baggage he now drags behind him like clanging soup cans tied to the bumper of a bride and groom's getaway car. And with all due respect to the 54-hole leader of this Masters, it isn't the unflappable Englishman, Lee Westwood -- at least not yet, it isn't.

The story is Phil Mickelson, whose life has been turned upside down not by scandal, but by sorrow. Both his wife Amy and his mother Mary are in a fistfight with breast cancer.

So it isn't surprising that Mickelson became the gallery favorite Saturday. Had you done a leaderboard for Goose Bumps Produced or Decibels Created, Mickelson would have been ahead by a dozen strokes. Had you kept stats for Most People Pulling For You, Mickelson would have lapped the field.

Instead, he'll have to settle for a 5-under-par round of 67 that included one, two and almost -- by this much -- three eagles in a row. His three-round total of 205 puts him just 1 stroke behind Westwood, who was nearly electrocuted by a 30-minute Lefty power surge during which Mickelson made up an astounding 5 shots in just three holes and actually took a brief lead.

"It happens here," said Mickelson. "I mean, it happens here. You know, we have seen some strange things happen over the years."

Like, say, Mickelson arriving at Augusta with zero wins this season. With only one top-10 finish. With an un-Phil-ish T-35 at last week's Houston Open.

But once he gets on the Augusta National property, Mickelson becomes Mr. Green Jacket again. He is somehow transformed by this tournament, this course and the comforting, almost restorative powers of having his family with him.

"This is the first week they've traveled in 11 months," said Mickelson. "It's really fun having them here. And it takes a lot of the heartache away."

They watch movies together. Mickelson and his daughter Sophia go to an Augusta coffee shop almost every morning and play chess for an hour. Nothing has been normal since the cancer diagnoses in mid-2009, but this helps. A lot.

"I'm sure it's awesome for him to go home at night and see the wife and kids at a tournament," said his longtime caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay.

Mickelson's father Phil and brother Tim, as well as swing coach Butch Harmon, followed Lefty during Saturday's round. Mary and Sophia followed him for nine holes on Friday. Amy watches from the house they're staying at during the tournament.

What they saw Saturday was Hot Tub Time Machine stuff, with Mickelson turning the way-back dial to 2006, when he won his second of two green jackets. It was magical.

"He loves this place," said Harmon. "Phil and Freddie [Couples] are entirely the same when they come here. They drive down Magnolia Lane and it really doesn't matter how they've been playing or what kind of year they have, they just get rejuvenated."

Mickelson began the afternoon trailing Westwood by 2 shots, then 3, and then by a full 5 strokes going into the par-5, 510-yard 13th hole. You could have built a Walmart between Westwood and the rest of the leaderboard.

And then Augusta National turned into the No. 1 cause for hearing loss.

If ever a Masters Saturday felt like a Masters Sunday, this was the day. For a tournament criticized in recent years for amputating the roars, the course sounded like a Metallica concert. Even the azaleas used earplugs.

"It's the Masters," said Mackay, shrugging.

It's one of the great Masters so far. You can't swing a 5-iron without hitting a great storyline.

For almost the entire week, Mickelson took a backseat to the Woods story: Tiger's transition from scandal to competitive golf. But by Saturday's end, Mickelson had moved ahead of Woods both on the leaderboard (Tiger is tied for third at 8-under) and on the attention scale.

The eagles are what did it. Mickelson lopped 2 strokes off Westwood's lead with the eagle on No. 13, 2 more strokes with the eagle on the par-4, 440-yard 14th hole, and then moved ahead with another near-eagle on the par-5, 530-yard 15th hole. Instead, he settled for a tap-in birdie.

His buddy Couples, who enters Sunday's round 5 strokes out of the lead, saw or heard most of it. When Mickelson holed that second shot on No. 14, Couples tried yelling a request to Lefty.

"He couldn't hear me, but I wanted the eagle ball," said Couples, who won here in 1992. "And then I chipped in on the next hole, so I told him he could have my eagle ball."

Sadly, Mickelson's ball never reached the end of the round.

"It made the measly par on 16 and [Mickelson] retired it," said Mackay.

Afterward, near the entrance of the clubhouse, Couples found Mackay.

"Bones, where's that ball at?" he said.

Mackay gave him the bad news. In fact, Mickelson had already jotted something on the ball.

"He [wrote], 'Eagle-eagle-birdie ball. Five under in three holes.' That's what it said," said Couples, laughing.

Couples is pulling for his friend. It seems just about everybody was pulling for him by the time Mickelson walked off the 18th green Saturday.

"He's gonna be the guy to beat," said Couples. "Lee Westwood is a phenomenal player, but I think Phil will be the guy to beat if he's even within a shot."

Mickelson doesn't tee off until 2:40 ET Sunday afternoon. More time for family, for the coffee shop, for Sophia and chess.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.