AUGUSTA, Ga. - There is just something about major championships that transforms Phil Mickelson from a golfer having a "terrible" season, in his own word, to someone who is almost good enough to win.
For the second major in a row, he was sufficiently sharp to be just short. Having done little since being runner-up at the PGA Championship last August, he shot an admirable 14 under par here to tie for second in the Masters. It left him partly frustrated, partly hopeful that, at 44, he still can be a major winner.
"I don't have a great explanation other than I really focus on those events," he said after his 3-under 69 left him four shots behind the champion, Jordan Spieth. "I really work for them with the idea that these are the events that I'm trying to play well in now. It's not my motivation to go try to grind out wins week after week. I want to zero in on the four or five biggest events."
The next one will be bigger than most. The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in the state of Washington will be his next chance to complete the career Grand Slam. The Open is the one major he has so far failed to win, although he has finished second a painful six times. He does not expect to spend much time in the Pacific Northwest ahead of time, trying to gain local knowledge. He will try to just get his game sharp. He gave himself a jump on that during the Masters.
"I feel like this is the way I've been playing, but scoring like this," he said. "This is the first week that I've got the score out of myself that I thought I should."
On the other hand, this Masters demonstrated just how difficult it will be for him to win the U.S. Open or any other major. There is a growing group of young stars coming along. Rory McIlroy edged Mickelson in the PGA at Valhalla last year and Spieth was too much for him here.
"I played a solid round but I needed to play an exceptional round," Mickelson said Sunday night. "I ended up having three bogeys that kind of stalled my round."
The closest he came to the eventual champion was a three-stroke margin, after he made eagle on the par-5 15th by holing a bunker shot. "I needed to do something spectacular," he said. "I needed to turn in 2 or 3 under par and then really light up the back and I didn't turn 2 or 3 under par."
His bogey on No. 9 finished a front nine of par 36, six shots out of first. His 33 on the back nine was fine, but just not quite enough. "I played really well to shoot 14 under," the three-time Masters champion said. "And I simply got outplayed by a young player who just played some incredible golf."