Late on Easter Sunday, Phil Mickelson stood over a birdie putt on
the 18th hole to win the 68th Masters, and it was as quiet as
church. Thousands of fans had encircled the green, glowing from
sweat and the most exciting Masters finish since 46-year-old Jack
Nicklaus reinvented himself in 1986. Ernie Els, the game's gentle
giant, was in the clubhouse after a dazzling 67, having rushed to
the lead of the tournament with two eagles in a span of six holes
midway through the round. Mickelson had chased him down with a
back-nine charge for the ages, and now, having endured countless
heartbreaks in his decade-plus pursuit of a first major
championship, Mickelson was facing the most important putt of his
career, 18 feet that meant so much to so many.
Behind the green was Mickelson's wife and college sweetheart, Amy. She had been
blinking back tears since the 15th hole, so overwhelming was the
emotion of the day. Nearby two sets of grandparents were passing
around Phil and Amy's three young children, including Evan, who
had just turned a year old. In March 2003 Amy and Evan had both
nearly died during childbirth. Phil was so shaken by the trauma
that he sleepwalked through the 2003 season, his worst in 12
years on the PGA Tour.
In San Diego, Mickelson's 92-year-old grandmother, Jennie Santos,
was resting comfortably in front of the TV. She had been getting
ready to leave for Augusta when she suffered a mild stroke. Just
before Christmas, Jennie's husband, Al, had died at 97. He had
adorned their kitchen with the 18th-hole flags from each of their
grandson's first 21 wins on Tour. Finally, in 2002, he told Phil
that the only flag he would accept was one from a major
championship. Shortly before his death Al whispered to Phil that
this would be the year he broke through.
All of this feeling and personal history was distilled into one
downhill, right-to-left putt. At last Mickelson nudged his ball
toward the cup. He had been on the other end of one of these
life-changing strokes, Payne Stewart's 18-footer for par on the
final hole of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. At that moment Amy
was in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to slow the signs of labor, as
their first child, Amanda, was on the way. When the putt dropped,
dealing Mickelson another in a string of devastating defeats,
Stewart took Mickelson's face in his hands and told him that
becoming a major champion could not compare to becoming a father.
Now, five years later at Augusta National, Mickelson was on the
verge of being both.
The putt crawled toward the hole. Moments earlier Mickelson had
studied playing partner Chris DiMarco's unsuccessful effort from
virtually the same spot. "Chris's ball was hanging on that left
lip, and when it got to the hole, it just fell off," Mickelson
said. "And my putt was almost on the identical line. Instead of
falling off, it caught that lip and circled around and went it. I
can't help but think [my grandfather] may have had a little
something to do with that."
April 18, 2004
The crowd exploded, a release years in the making. Mickelson did
a low-flying jumping jack and screamed, "I did it!" His longtime
caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, rushed over for a hug. Mickelson
walked behind the green and scooped up his daughter Sophia.
"Daddy won! Can you believe it?" he said. He wrapped Amy in a
long, tearful hug. The 18th green at the Masters has seen some of
golf's most memorable displays of emotion. Phil and Amy were in
almost the same spot where Tiger Woods and his father, Earl,
embraced after Tiger's victory in 1997. The final green is where
Ben Crenshaw was doubled over in agony and ecstasy after having
been guided to victory in '95 by the unseen hand of his teacher
Harvey Penick, who died two days before the tournament began.
Now Mickelson had joined the pantheon of Masters winners. After
17 career top 10s in the majors, including three straight
third-place finishes at Augusta, he had proved himself in the
most audacious fashion imaginable. On a course that is far
tougher than it was in '86, when Nicklaus shot a back-nine 30 to
surge to victory, Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes
to finish with a 31 on the final nine on Sunday. He became only
the sixth player to win the Masters with a birdie on the 72nd
hole, a list that includes Arnold Palmer, who had a birdie-birdie
finish in 1960.
"Now we can finally stamp him approved," said Davis Love III, a
close friend of Mickelson's. "It's like a ... what's the right
word?... It's like a coronation."
You can't have a coronation without the King, and over the first
two days Mickelson and every other competitor had to take a
backseat to Palmer, who was saying goodbye to Augusta after 50
years of mythmaking. Palmer was the first player to win four
green jackets, between 1958 and '64; the Masters is where his
Army first marched. As he said goodbye on Friday, the pines
echoed with the roars from the standing ovations he received on
every hole. At 18, in a golden twilight, Palmer tapped in for a
final bogey. Behind the green he kissed a pretty girl--his
fiancee, Kit Gawthrop--and then he was gone.
At that moment, on the 17th hole, Mickelson was charging.
Something in his strut looked familiar during a week in which so
much footage of the vintage Palmer was unreeled. As Mickelson
walked toward the green, where a frighteningly fast 30-footer for
birdie awaited, his swing coach, Rick Smith, whispered into the
ear of Amy Mickelson, "Look how fast he's going. He knows he's
going to make this putt. He's dying to hit it!" Sure enough,
Mickelson poured the putt into the hole, the last exclamation
point on a solid 69 that vaulted him into a tie for fourth place,
three shots back of Justin Rose, the young Englishman.
As a phenom back in 1991, Mickelson was saddled with the tag of
the Next Nicklaus, but he has always had a lot more in common
with Palmer. Both have made an intensely personal connection with
fans, thanks to an agreeable, approachable manner and a
go-for-broke style. They have also been defined as much by their
shattering defeats as by their many triumphs. Until last week
Mickelson had been 0 for 46 in the majors, in large part because
of the real Next Nicklaus: Tiger Woods turned out to be the Bear
apparent. With Woods almost clinically winning seven of 11 majors
from 1999 to 2002, the deficiencies in Mickelson's game were
thrown into sharp relief. He was one-dimensional in his ball
striking, employing almost exclusively a hard draw that could
turn into a runaway hook. Mickelson loved to bomb it off the tee,
accuracy be damned, and he was inclined to fire at every flag,
regardless of the consequences. That style worked wonderfully at
the Bob Hope Classic but was fatal at the Grand Slam events,
where tougher courses with exacting setups extract severe
penalties for mistakes. Yet Mickelson defiantly refused to change
A brutal 2003 compelled him to do some soul-searching. He had
failed to win all year for only the second time in his career and
plummeted to 15th in the World Ranking. He had slipped to 189th
in driving accuracy. At year's end Mickelson took a hard look in
the mirror. While the buffed Woods increasingly resembles an NFL
safety, Mickelson had the body of a couch potato. Not anymore.
Since December he has lost 15 pounds by going bunless at In-N-Out
Burger and laying off his beloved doughnuts, as well as by
working out six times a week with Sean Cochran, a former strength
and conditioning coach for the San Diego Padres who accompanies
him to every tournament on Mickelson's Gulfstream.
More important, Mickelson reshaped his swing. Around Christmas,
Smith spent five 10-hour days working to quiet Mickelson's lower
body and shorten his backswing when hitting his irons, leading to
more balance and consistency. They also perfected a reliable
fade, sacrificing a few yards for greater control. Mickelson
looked like a different player while winning his season debut at
the Hope, even (gasp) laying up on a watery par-5 down the
stretch. (That he went on to three-putt for bogey was an irony
even Mickelson could appreciate.)
Augusta National, though, loomed as the ultimate test. In the
previous three Masters, Mickelson had made 60 birdies, while the
respective champions combined for 58, but to win he would have to
make fewer big numbers. Last week the course's dangerous par-5s
were the battlefield where the war played out between the old and
new Phil. When, instead of boldly firing at the flag on 13 on
Thursday, he conservatively aimed 35 feet left, it was clear that
Mickelson was playing a different game than in years past. And
when you don't tempt the golf gods, you are rewarded. At 13 on
Friday, Mickelson pulled his approach, and it rolled off the
green toward Rae's Creek before stopping inches above the hazard,
the most momentous Velcro job since Fred Couples's ball stayed up
on 12 in 1992. Mickelson turned a would-be 6 into a 4, the key
break of the tournament.
For this Masters, Mickelson throttled back in another way,
abandoning his trademark flop shot on Augusta National's tight
lies and using his putter from off the greens. This wasn't
glamorous, but it got the job done. At the 18th on Saturday he
got up and down from behind the green with a deft putt off a
mound, preserving a bogeyless 69 that gave him his first 54-hole
lead in a major.
Over the first three rounds Mickelson played the most controlled,
disciplined golf of his career, hitting 73.6% of his fairways and
leading the tournament in greens in regulation. Still, Sunday
would be his most important round ever. That Woods, his nemesis,
was in 20th place, at three over par, surely helped. "Well, it
doesn't suck," Mickelson said, breaking up a loosey-goosey press
However relaxed Mickelson seemed, you just knew he wouldn't make
it easy on Sunday. Early on he came down with a case of the yips
(missing a 3 1/2-footer for par on 3) and then the fluffs
(leaving a sand shot in a bunker on 5 for another bogey).
Mickelson was three down to a charging Els when he reached the
heart of Amen Corner.
Mickelson might have played Nicklaus's brand of percentage golf
to get this far, but now it was time to get after it like Arnie.
On the par-3 12th, the scariest little hole in golf, Mickelson
attacked the flag, sticking an eight-iron to 12 feet for the
birdie that began his comeback. At 13 he ripped a high fade
around the corner and then rifled a seven-iron to 20 feet,
setting up a two-putt birdie. He was one back, but only for a
moment, as Els played a superb chip at the par-5 15th, capping a
run in which he went six under in a nine-hole stretch.
After a perfect drive at 14 Mickelson and Mackay stood in the
fairway chewing on club selection. Bones is the only caddie
Mickelson has ever had. He is part of what Amy calls "our gang."
She says, "We joke that Phil is the only player in golf history
to have the same wife, caddie, agent and nanny his whole career."
Standing 146 yards from the hole, Bones talked Mickelson out of a
nine-iron and persuaded him to hit a hard pitching wedge. It
stopped two inches from the cup for a gimme birdie. One down.
"That was a very good idea," Mickelson said of the club Bones had
Mickelson was still one down when he arrived at the par-3 16th.
The hole cost him dearly in 2001, when his hooked seven-iron put
him above the hole, resulting in a three-putt that killed his
chances. This time Mickelson trusted his high fade and fed an
eight-iron off the slope to 15 feet. "That one swing says more
about Phil's development than any other," said Smith. When
Mickelson buried the putt, he was even with Els, setting up the
drama of the 72nd hole.
Long after the winning putt had dropped, there was a sense of
disbelief that Mickelson had really done it. Wearing his new
43-long jacket, he said, "It was an amazing, amazing day, the
fulfillment of all my dreams." Amy still couldn't stop dabbing
her eyes, while Amanda was telling any adult within earshot,
"Green is my new favorite color."
With Woods fighting his swing and on the verge of domesticity,
for Mickelson this Masters should be not the culmination of a
career but the beginning of a wondrous second act. One of the
game's greatest, Ben Hogan, didn't win his first major until he
was 34. By the time he was 41, he had eight more. Mickelson is
only 33. For years golf fans have been waiting for someone to
play Palmer to Woods's Nicklaus. Now Mickelson has arrived. The
King is gone. Long live the new king.