Phil Mickelson says his game is 'coming around' before the Masters

Although Phil Mickelson is off to a slow start this year, he says he's driving the ball well entering Masters

Phil Mickelson will begin his 23rd Masters on Thursday morning as a longshot to secure his fourth green jacket. That's understandable given a 2015 log that shows two missed cuts and only two top-20 finishes in seven starts. He also missed the cut at the Masters last year for just the second time.

But if confidence is a prerequisite for clawing into contention, Mickelson has that box checked. Despite finishing tied for 30th at the Texas Open and tied for 17th at the Houston Open the last two weeks, Mickelson made 35 birdies and one eagle in those events, proof in his mind that his game is "coming around."

"I really thought I would start the year out on fire, and it couldn't have been further from that," he said. "But I'm excited with what's going to happen the rest of the year. … You've got to take baby steps."

Mickelson said he has become less defensive in recent weeks and is driving the ball "maybe better than I have in decades."

Plus, a familiar serenity always seems to greet the five-time major champion when he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"The thing about Augusta is that I don't feel like I have to be perfect," Mickelson said. "So it relaxes me. Even though I may not have my best stuff on any given day, I still feel like I can shoot in the 60s."

Aces wild

Five holes in one were made during the par-three competition, including two from Camilo Villegas. Villegas tied Kevin Streelman at five-under 22, and Streelman won on the third playoff hole.

Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters winner, almost joined Wednesday's ace party, knocking his tee shot on the 120-yard eighth hole inside of six inches. Woods let his 7-year-old daughter, Sam, tap in the birdie putt.

"These were memories of a lifetime," Woods said.

Piece of history

Arnold Palmer got a little misty over a souvenir he received at the Masters.

It was a chunk of dead wood.

Augusta National officials gave him a remnant from the Eisenhower Tree, a longtime landmark on the 17th hole that had to be removed last year after suffering damage from an ice storm.

Palmer called the Tuesday night presentation "pretty emotional."

"That just made me sort of reminisce a little bit about the years and how the Masters has changed and how the young people should really take a look at themselves, as well as the golf tournament and the Masters tournament and realize how fortunate they are," he told the Golf Channel.

The loblolly pine got its name because former President Eisenhower, an avid golfer, tangled with it so often when he played Augusta that he asked that it be cut down.

A shoulder injury prevented Palmer from playing in the par-three contest. He was asked whether he planned to join Nicklaus and Player before Thursday's first round to hit a tee shot in his customary role of honorary starter.

"You're damned right I'm going to," he said.

sports@latimes.com

Wiederer reported from Augusta, Ga., Wharton from Los Angeles.

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