Watching Sunday’s coverage of the final round at the Masters has been a treat.

But beyond seeing two legitimate superstars in Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka dueling it out while players like Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed make runs up the leaderboard, viewers were treated to Phil Mickelson putting up a ridiculously good 65 to surge to -8 for the tournament.

When Mickelson birdied 18 to take the clubhouse lead, it was hard not to get excited. The galleries certainly pulled for him, and a lot of casual fans and viewers probably aren’t even aware of the wide context surrounding Mickelson’s ostracization within the sport over the last year or so. Sponsors dropped him in the wake of his comments about knowingly working with “scary mother——-” in the Saudi regime to launch LIV Golf, and Mickelson skipped last year’s Masters in the wake of his own actions.

Mickelson’s antics over the last few years haven’t just been contained to profiting from sportswashing a bad human rights record. Among other issues, Mickelson went on a weird personal crusade against a journalist in 2021, upset over a very legitimate piece about Mickelson’s longstanding gambling issues. Mickelson off the course very much seems like a different personality, not so much chastened as deflated in spots where he can probably sense changed feelings about him.

That included the pre-Masters festivities at Augusta, as Brendan Porath wrote at The Fried Egg:

Outside the ropes, everything is still uncomfortable and awkward. On Wednesday, Mickelson stood on the veranda of the Augusta National clubhouse half-hiding behind columns while subtly trying to get the attention of friends below under the big oak.

He moved from column to column, timidly attempting to make connections while only partially in view. Once that was done, he settled into a table on the veranda around the corner and almost entirely out of view of the buzzing high society crowd down below at the oak and passing by the clubhouse.

The surreptitious, emotionless movements stood in contrast to a story told about a prior year when Mickelson, often at a table front and center, rose on that veranda shouting down to an acquaintance to check out his belt, made with the skin of a reptile, that he was thrusting into view.

On the course on Sunday, though, Mickelson was almost perfect, electrifying patrons en route to his 65, a scorecard marred by just one bogey.

That Phil could turn things back to this degree is only a surprise due to his lack of top-level reps. A lot of bad-faith observers will point to Mickelson, Koepka, and Patrick Reed’s presence at the top of the leaderboard as a sign that LIV Golf is top-level competition, but the real lesson might be that if you’ve had success at Augusta National, you’ll probably always have success at Augusta National.

It’s how we saw 63 year-old Freddie Couples make the cut this year. Phil and Reed are former champions, while Koepka could have easily won in 2019, losing to a returning Tiger Woods. (Tiger making the cut again this year is another example of how course fit and knowledge can transcend current overall form and even health.)

That’s an aside, though. The real lesson was how easily I slipped back into enjoying Phil’s crowd-pleasing style of play; watching him hunt pins on a Sunday at Augusta was a reminder that he could absolutely be a factor at the Masters well into his 50s. Mickelson, in fact, could have had a huge voice as an aging statesman, helping chart the PGA Tour’s course without resorting to sedition, playing on his lifetime exemptions at Augusta and the Open and the PGA (and eventually bidding farewell to the U.S. Open), popping up on a leaderboard every few years to delight audiences.

Instead, though, he’s here playing in his Hy Flyers team gear (which is, honestly, so dumb it’s funny.) There’s no ethical consumerism in sports, to be clear; I have no illusions of that. If you want to cheer for Phil, you should. This isn’t really about the moral implications of Phil going to LIV. It’s much more about the road not taken, and how much more fun that would seem to have been for everyone involved. Includingand maybe especially, based on his behavior this week, for Mickelson himself.

[Photo Credit: CBS]