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Phil Mickelson hopes to recapture Jack Nicklaus magic 31 years later at the Masters

Phil Mickelson hits a shot from a sand trap along the 18th fairway during a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia on Tuesday.
Phil Mickelson hits a shot from a sand trap along the 18th fairway during a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia on Tuesday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Phil Mickelson has made the right-hand turn off Washington Road onto Magnolia Lane to start a Masters week 25 times during his long career.

Mickelson might be getting older, but he says returning to Augusta National never gets old.

“I always love coming here. I think we all do,” he said Tuesday. “It’s probably my favorite place on earth.”

That sort of sappy declaration and Mickelson’s seemingly permanent smile are what prompt some of his peers to roll their eyes at the left-hander, who remains among the most popular golfers in the fan voting.

Love him or hate him, Mickelson still moves the meter.

He created a bit of a stir Tuesday by suggesting Lexi Thompson should be declared the winner of last weekend’s ANA Inspiration tournament. Thompson lost after receiving a 2-stroke penalty for not properly marking her ball a day earlier (a violation spotted by a TV viewer who emailed the LPGA), then was docked another two strokes for signing an incorrect scorecard.

The other thing about Mickelson: He has staying power.

While Tiger Woods will miss his second consecutive Masters and third in four years with a balky back, Mickelson keeps showing up.

This week marks Mickelson’s 25th Masters appearance since 1991, when – after qualifying by winning the U.S. Amateur the year before – he called Arnold Palmer to arrange a practice round.

Mickelson wound up finishing 2-over par and in a tie for 46th, which is a number that kept popping up Tuesday.

Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he became the oldest player to win the Masters in 1986.

Mickelson, who’s 46, said he doesn’t think much about his age, but has become more careful about his diet and tries to stay away from processed sugars.

“I think that guys’ careers are being extended a lot longer because of the way fitness has taken over,” he said. “And it’s not like I’m a pillar of fitness, but I spend a decent enough time to be able to physically perform and practice and play the way I’d like to play.”

Several older players have contended at Augusta in recent years.

Bernard Langer was 58 last year when he started Sunday in third place before a final-round 79.

And though Mickelson has been inconsistent this season after two sports hernia surgeries, he’s less than a year removed from a thrilling shootout with Henrik Stenson and a second-place finish in the British Open.

Nicklaus said he thinks Mickelson is better prepared to win here at 46 than the Golden Bear was 31 years ago.

“I don’t think he’s probably playing his best golf right now but sometimes that changes very quickly,” Nicklaus said. “Honestly, age is not an issue to him. He’s a big guy and he’s a long guy and he’s got a great short game. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find him in contention.”

Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion who has missed the cut here two of the past three years. He was runner-up to Jordan Spieth in 2015 and knows the course as well as anyone.

Mickelson believes his experience could show up big in the cool, windy conditions expected during the first two rounds.

“What I like most about this week is that Thursday, Friday, the weather is going to come in and that’s going to magnify the misses for a lot of players, which means that you need to miss it in the correct spots,” Mickelson said. “Even though you might miss it big, if you’re in the right spot, you can take advantage of your short game and salvage a lot of pars.”

Mickelson wants to hang around through the weekend, when temperatures are forecast to rise and scores should drop.

And who knows, maybe he can grab some of the magic that Nicklaus captured at the 1986 tournament, which a teen-aged Mickelson videotaped in Arizona.

“I VCR’ed it,” Mickelson said, drawing laughter. “Many don’t even know what that (technology) was, but I taped it and watched it over and over and just marveled at what it was. It was just incredible. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the game.”

Mickelson would love nothing more than to make VCR – errrr, DVD – memories again this week at his favorite place on earth.

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