Green jacket on Mickelson's mind

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson wasted little time in addressing the 800-pound gorilla in his press conference Tuesday.

When Augusta National Golf Club member Billy Morris concluded his introduction of Mickelson by saying, "He's played in 11 Masters and has had a beautiful record here," Mickelson chimed in, "But no wins. No wins."

Mickelson pointed at Morris' jacket and said, "I want what you have. I want one of these. Those are nice."

He has finished in the top 10 in seven Masters, including third place in each of the last three years. He comes into the tournament as the best golfer of the first three months of the PGA Tour. Mickelson leads the money list, with $2,318,600. He leads the race for the Vardon Trophy (69.11 scoring average). He won the Bob Hope in January. How much better can he play?

Dumb question.

At age 33, Mickelson isn't closing in on the Red Sox's capacity for not winning a big one. But his record in the major championships is filled with almosts and what-ifs:

The putt by Payne Stewart on the 72nd hole at the 1999 U.S. Open.

The up-and-down from the fairway by David Toms on the 72nd hole at the 2001 PGA.

The duel with Tiger Woods at Bethpage at the U.S. Open in 2002.

And the last three years here.

Asked what he would be doing Tuesday night "while the dinner is happening," Mickelson replied, "Oh, you mean the Champions dinner is tonight? Oh, I didn't know that."

With comic timing as metronomic as his golf swing, Mickelson added, "Well, there's a good reason I don't know that."

After a rocky, winless 2003, Mickelson gave himself a physical and mental tuneup. He is working out more. He is talking less, saying no to nearly all media requests. He is driving it straighter and chipping it better. The effect on his renewed focus is obvious. So is his anticipation for Thursday morning, when he will tee off with Shigeki Maruyama and Darren Clarke.

"If I thought it was a negative that I had not won," Mickelson said, "I think I would dread those events more than I would look forward to them, and I just get so excited to be here."

Mickelson spent two days at Augusta National last week with Rick Smith, his swing coach, and short-game master Dave Pelz, looking, as he put it, to save a quarter of a shot here, a half of a shot there. It's a mindset, of course, more than a mathematical possibility.

"What I have found," Mickelson said, "is the last three years, if I could have saved a shot a round, I would have had two wins and a tie."

The older you get at Augusta, the more shots you learn. As the only major that is played at the same course every year, the players come to know Augusta National intimately. Mickelson pointed out that he is just now old enough to be returning to Shinnecock Hills in June for a second U.S. Open. He finished tied for fourth there in 1995.

"I feel like that goal I mentioned earlier about trying to shave a half a shot or a full shot here or there ... is easier on a course that I have so much more history on," Mickelson said.

"I think every time you go out there, you learn something," Ernie Els said of Augusta National. "There's always one hole where you probably have never hit it before. You've got to create a new shot."

The strongest feature of Mickelson's game has always been his imagination. Sometimes, it has been too strong. The shots he pulled off in his head haven't always made it to reality. Yet this season, there seems to be a newfound maturity about Mickelson and his decision-making on the course. It could just be that he is missing fewer fairways, thus needing to make fewer gambles, which is his theory. Or it could be that he is less willing to tilt at golf's windmills.

Whatever the case, Mickelson's seven top-10 finishes equal how many he had in all of 2003. In a year in which 14 PGA Tour events have been won by 14 different golfers, Mickelson has been more consistent than anyone. No other golfer has more than four top-10s.

That consistency doesn't necessarily translate into being a name on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. But Mickelson will happily take his chances.

"As I enter the tournament, I have a lot more confidence that I'll be there come the weekend," Mickelson said, "that it's not a hit-or-miss situation. I'm playing well enough to get into contention without having to do anything extraordinary."

Oh, if only he can say goodbye to the gorilla.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.