Thirteen years into his professional golfing career, Phil Mickelson hadn’t won one of the four major tournaments—The Masters, The U.S. Open, The Open Championship, or The PGA Championship.
In those first thirteen years, Mickelson won twenty-two PGA Tour tournaments. That’s plenty to warrant the oft-asked question: will Phil Mickelson go down as “the best player to never win a major”?
Before the 2004 season, Mickelson hired David Pelz, a NASA scientist turned putting instructor. Pelz had worked with golfers who had won ten major championships combined.
“Phil called me,” Pelz recalls, “and said, ‘Can you help me lower my scores by one stroke in a major?’ And I said, ‘No one’s ever asked me that before.’” ¹ But then Pelz assured Mickelson that he could help him lower his scores. What he proposed surprised Mickelson. As Pelz saw it, it wasn’t with any technical or physical improvement that Mickelson was going to finally win a major. It would be “with better preparation.”
So before the 2004 Masters, Mickelson and Pelz went to Augusta National, home of The Masters tournament. For four days—some eight to ten hours a day, Pelz had Mickelson hit shots from spots he was most likely to find himself in. “And then in the tournament,” Phil said, “if I was there, I’d already hit that shot over and over.”
The goal with this kind of preparation, he said, was to make “the major course feel like my home course.” ² To get to the point where there wasn’t a spot on the course he wasn’t familiar or comfortable with. To be able to stay calm under pressure, to be able to hold on to a one stroke lead in a major.
For nearly three decades, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has been studying the brain. In particular, her research is focused on unlocking where emotions—calmness, panic, happiness, anxiousness, nervousness, pleasantness, unpleasantness, and so on—come from and how they shape our lives. When I read her work, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mickelson’s final round in the 2004 Masters.
We will come back to Phil on that Sunday in 2004 after a brief detour into the secret life of the brain.
Dr. Barrett’s bestselling book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain—gets its title from the discovery that emotions are constructed by the brain.
We do not come hard-wired with the ability to feel calm and happy and anxious and nervous and so on. Everything we feel is cultivated in our environments and through our experiences. We are architects of our emotions. “Your river of feelings,” Dr. Barrett writes, “might feel like it’s flowing over you, but actually you’re the river’s source.” ³
Your brain constructs every sensation you experience. To understand how and why, consider your brain’s perspective. It’s trapped in your skull. It’s trapped in darkness, where it’s constantly receiving information from your sensory organs: your eyes, your ears, your nose, your skin, and your mouth. And, it’s constantly trying to make sense of that sensory data. To do so, it relies heavily, and sometimes entirely, on your past experiences. It sifts through it’s archives of experiences, looking for one that matches or nearly matches your present circumstances. “It combines bits and pieces of your past,” Dr. Barrett explains, “and estimates how likely each bit applies in your current situation.”
The brain is constantly running probabilities and making predictions. It’s 86 billion neurons are constantly cascading with stimulation, constantly firing, constantly asking, what from our past is this present situation most analogous to? “These neural conversations,” Dr. Barrett writes, “try to anticipate [everything] that you will experience, and every action that you will take. These predictions are your brain’s best guesses of what’s going on in the world around you and how to deal with it…This efficient, predictive process is your brain’s default way of navigating the world, making sense of it, [and] initiating your body’s movements…Everything you feel is based on prediction from your knowledge and past experience.”
Each experience of emotion is a prediction, not a reaction. It is a blooming of seeds planted in your past. The Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman referred to it as “the remembered past.” Some two thousand years before him, the philosopher Seneca advised a friend that if you don’t want to panic when the pressure is on, train before the pressure is on. ⁴
I now think of panicking in this way: panicking is your brain calling you out—you didn’t put in the work, the practice, the preparation. You didn’t form the experience for your brain to later use as a reference point. Without that reference point, as Dr. Barrett puts it, it’s like “swimming in a sea of uncertainty.” ⁵
When Mickelson spent four days at Augusta National practicing every shot imaginable, he was creating those reference points. He was forming the experiences his brain would later use to guide his present. He was seeding his brain to conjure calm. He was, on a neurological level, as he said, making the Masters feel like home.
He couldn’t have picked a better year for that level of preparation. The final round of the 2004 Masters turned out to be one of the great nail-biters in sports history.
Mickelson was six under par and tied for first heading into the final round. After he made bogie on holes five and six and Ernie Els eagle’d the eighth hole, Mickelson dropped into second. Els shot another eagle on thirteen to take a two-stroke lead. And after he birdied on fifteen, the commentator said Els’ “got the Green Jacket by the collar.” ⁶
Meanwhile, Mickelson hit his driver down the middle of the fairway on the fourteenth hole. Before his second shot on fourteen, his caddie told him he needed a birdie to stay in it. “I had 146 yards,” Phil said after, “and with the hours I spent with Dave Pelz, getting the yardages down, I knew that I had to take 7 yards off my pitching wedge.” ⁷ His shot landed about 10 yards from the hole, checked up, rolled just past the cup, and stopped six inches away. He tapped in for a birdie and was one stroke back from Els.
Els held the lead when he was teeing off on the eighteenth hole while Mickelson was teeing off on the par-3 sixteenth hole. Phil hit his eight-iron about twenty feet from the hole.
“As I was walking up to the green,” he said, “I really thought that it didn’t feel overwhelming. I thought, ‘I’ll make this putt and I’ll birdie one of the last two holes.’”
He sunk the putt. He and Els were tied. Els tapped in a par putt on the eighteenth hole and then went to the practice green to get some reps before, presumably, a playoff. Mickelson hit a 3-wood off the tee that landed in the middle of the fairway on the eighteenth hole. He had 162 yards to the pin. He hit an eight-iron. The ball landed six feet to the right of the pin and rolled to leave Phil with another twenty-foot putt. This one, to win his first ever Major.
Mickelson putts the ball. The ball travels toward the hole. It’s looking good. “Is it his time?” the commentator asks. The ball catches the left lip, circles around the cup, and falls in the hole. “Yes! At long last!” the commentator answers.
“It’s nice,” Mickelson said after, “not to ever have to hear all that stuff about being the best player to never win a major.” ⁸
Because of the preparation, he said, “I had a different feeling entering this tournament. I felt very calm.” ⁹ It was his brain saluting him—you put in the work, the practice, the preparation.
 Dave Pelz, tell us exactly what Phil Mickelson’s Pelz swing is? by Malachy Clerkin
 How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
 Letters From A Stoic by Seneca
 Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
 Sports of The Times; A Sweet Victory, One That Went According to Plan by Dave Anderso
 Leap of Destiny: An Oral History Behind Mickelson’s Breakthrough Masters Win by Brian Wacker
 Calculated aggression yields masterful result for retooled Mickelson by Don Markus
Thank you to Joe Donohue, Greg Shildkrout, Katie McKenzie, and my Dad for reading drafts of this.