AUGUSTA, GA. — Phil Mickelson, man of the people, appears to have become a man of fewer people.

Mickelson built his popularity on daring shots and winning smiles, greeting doting fans with eye contact and vertical thumbs, and that was all it took for him to become famous before he ever won a major.

On Thursday, in the first round of the Masters, he was followed by shockingly few fans, most of whom produced scattered cheers, along with a few unprintable mutters.

This is Mickelson's first Masters since 2021, and his first since becoming a ringleader for PGA Tour pros defecting to LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed upstart league.

He played alongside former Minnesota amateur champ and Fargo native Tom Hoge. Mickelson shot a 71. Hoge shot a 73.

Mickelson outplayed Tiger Woods, too, with Woods shooting a 74, although Woods attracted far more followers on Thursday.

Woods has proven he has superior pain tolerance. He's playing on a reconstructed right knee, causing him to tap several times on his left leg after hitting an awkward approach shot on the 18th hole.

Mickelson remains the king of risk tolerance, as he demonstrated on the second hole, the downhill par 5.

He hooked his drive into the trees, then decided to hit driver off the pine straw, which is not, as the kids would say, a thing.

Mickelson hit a branch, with the ball squirting far left of the green, over by the eighth fairway. Then he hit one of his high-risk flop shots and made the birdie putt. It was classic Mickelson.

He bounced a shot into the pond to the left of the 16th green, then hit a superb shot from the tee box, spinning the ball to within five feet and making the bogey putt.

On 17, he hit it into the trees on the left, hit his approach long, then executed a flop shot to get the ball within 6 feet to save par.

His 71 was impressive, considering that he's 52, hasn't been playing well of late and seems uncomfortable as the face of LIV Golf.

His LIV team name — HyFlyers — was on his hat, shirt and bag, but he has avoided providing lengthy answers about his new league this week.

Mickelson once told author Alan Shipnuck that he was troubled by the Saudi Arabian government's history of human rights abuses, then joined LIV anyway. Many PGA Tour pros who left originally claimed they were trying to "grow the game.'' Harold Varner, who joined LIV, told the Washington Post that was a lie.

"They're growing their pockets,'' Varner said.

Mickelson did not play in the Masters last year. Tuesday night at the Champions Dinner, Mickelson reportedly kept to himself. Former champion Fuzzy Zoeller told the Augusta Chronicle that Mickelson "sat near the end of the table'' and "didn't speak at all.''

Mickelson usually holds court at The Masters, gushing in the interview room about his love of Augusta National and its nuances. This year, the three-time Masters champ declined to speak in the interview room.

Mickelson does not seem to be capable of feeling guilty, so his reticence is probably nothing more than an attempt at damage control.

Asked what he was thinking at the beginning of his round, Mickelson said, "That I get to play Augusta National in the Masters and this is an awesome day no matter what I shoot. Just trying to enjoy the day and not put so much pressure on myself.''

Mickelson's connection with fans has always been self-serving and superficial. The creativity and boldness of his game remains fascinating.

He hit a half-dozen shots on Thursday that, for almost anyone else, would have been ill-advised, and he pulled off most of them.

Mickelson's departure for LIV and his whining about the structure of the tour that made him rich and famous have further exposed the selfishness that was always at his core.

As with actors and musicians, sometimes you have to separate the art from the artist. You don't have to like Mickelson to appreciate the most creative pair of hands since Seve Ballesteros.