Phil Mickelson didn't win the Masters, but his scrappy
third-place finish left little doubt that one day he will.
Although he wasn't able to mount a big charge on Sunday, the boy
wonder played like a grizzled veteran down the stretch. "It's a
real heartbreaker, because I put myself in a position to win and
didn't take advantage of it," says the 25-year-old Mickelson,
who wound up a stroke behind Greg Norman.

"But what I'm most proud of is that I stayed patient and played
smart all four days." Mickelson opened the tournament with a
dazzling 65, the lowest score by a lefty in Masters history.
Just as impressive was his gritty play over the next three
rounds, when he didn't have his best fastball. On his way to a
73-72-72 finish, he prudently picked which pins to fire at and
swallowed hard and played for par, sometimes even bogey, when he
had to. Cautious choices kept Mickelson from double bogey or
worse all week. Were it not for some hiccups by his usually
trusty putter--on Sunday he left putts short and bogeyed both
the 7th and 8th holes--Mickelson might be celebrating more than
a moral victory. "It's cool to have had the opportunity," says
Mickelson, who tied for fourth at the 1995 U.S. Open. "If I'm
there enough, odds are one of these times it has to happen for
me."

This was Mickelson's fourth try at Augusta. He has improved
every time out, going from 46th to 34th to tied for seventh and
now to third. There seems to be a pattern here. "I think about
this tournament quite often," Mickelson said after the final
round. "Everything that I've worked on, every change that I've
made, every thought process I've worked on is geared to this
tournament." Mickelson switched to a new titanium driver last
month so he could hit the ball lower, the better to take
advantage of Augusta's hard, fast fairways. He has also worked
to flatten his swing, which reduces the backspin on his ball and
allows him to place his approaches more precisely, the key to
success at the Masters.

Of course, part of Mickelson's appeal is that he hits the kind
of shots that can't be taught. During the third round he pulled
off a couple of doozies. Lost in the woods after his drive on
the par-5 2nd hole, Mickelson turned around his four-iron and
took a swing righthanded, successfully punching out of trouble
on his way to a par. Stymied again by trees on the 9th, he
opened the face on his driver and hit a low, screaming slice
that snaked its way for 180 yards before settling 12 feet from
the hole.

Uh, Phil, did you hesitate at all before trying such risky
shots? "Of course not," he says, somewhat miffed at the
question. "That was the only play."

With the chutzpah to match his phenomenal talent, and the
continuing refinement and maturation of his game, Mickelson is
as close to a sure thing in the future as Augusta will allow. He
knows this too and is looking forward to his time.

"Have a good evening," the always courteous Mickelson said as he
was taking leave from reporters on Sunday night. "I'll see you
next year."

--Alan Shipnuck

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Mickelson handled Augusta's rough spots. [Phil Mickelson]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)