Master Craftsman

April 17, 2006
April 17, 2006

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April 17, 2006

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Master Craftsman

With skillful and disciplined play, Phil Mickelson dominated the field at Augusta, winning his second straight major and suggesting that the best may be yet to come

First there wasthe Old Phil--remember him? For a decade he played a thrilling brand oflow-percentage golf, blitzing the fields at Phoenix Opens and Bob Hope Classicsbut always beating himself when the stakes were the highest. The New Philemerged in 2004 with a throttled-back game built for the majors, and though itbrought him two breakthrough victories they were still high-wire acts, as hehad to birdie the last hole to prevail at both the 2004 Masters and the 2005PGA Championship. Last week, at the 70th Masters, came the unveiling of the NewNew Phil--a potent mix of overpowering golf, increased discipline andhard-earned experience. The latest version of Mickelson doesn't just winmajors, he dominates them. He not only beats the competition but alsodemoralizes his fellow pros. ¶ Mickelson went into the final round of thisMasters with a one-stroke lead, and as he played the 7th hole on Sunday he wasin a five-way tie for first and 15 players were within three strokes of thelead, including three of his four primary rivals: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh andRetief Goosen. (Ernie Els had been only four back at the start of the day butsuffered another Sunday meltdown.) What had the makings of a classic back-nineshootout instead turned into a suspense-free coronation. Mickelson madetextbook birdies at the 7th and 8th holes to regain the outright lead and thenproduced the kind of methodical, indomitable, airtight golf that has been thehallmark of Woods's biggest victories. Mickelson simply refused to make a bogeywhile patiently allowing everyone else to beat themselves. By the timeMickelson reached the 16th hole he was four strokes ahead and cruising."This is the best round I've ever seen him play," Rick Smith,Mickelson's longtime swing coach, said from behind the 16th green. "He hasincredible control out there." Only a meaningless bogey on the 18th holeprevented Mickelson from becoming the fifth Masters champion to play the finalround without a blemish.

This is an article from the April 17, 2006 issue Original Layout

Now halfway to theMickelslam, having won the last two majors and three of the past nine, he isbeginning to transcend comparisons with his contemporaries and stir the ghostsof the game's alltime greats. It's a mind-bending change from the lost yearsduring which Mickelson was measured not against other golfers but against DanMarino and Charles Barkley and other megatalents who never won the big one. Nowit's time to reach for the Ben Hogan parallels. Hogan didn't win his firstmajor until he was 34; by the time he was 41 he had eight more. Any chance thatthe 35-year-old Mickelson will get complacent after his latest triumph?"Tomorrow we'll start preparing for Winged Foot," he said on Sundaynight, a nod to the site of the U.S. Open in June.

It was Mickelson'spreparation for this Masters that proved decisive. Following the 2005tournament, Augusta National underwent its latest round of retrofitting, beingstretched to 7,445 yards in its continuing evolution from a wide-openshotmaker's delight to a longer, tighter, more penal test that demands as muchprecision as power. Mickelson had ended his 0-for-42 drought in the majors atthe 2004 Masters by employing little more than a controlled fade off the tee,but with Augusta National now 155 yards longer Mickelson felt he needed morepop this year. In a practice round on the Masters course 10 days before thestart of the tournament, the player whom his colleagues sardonically callGenius decided to go with two drivers. He used his regular big stick on dogleglefts, such as the 5th and 13th holes, where he is so comfortable hitting softfades. When he wanted to really bust one, he used a driver that isheel-weighted with a longer shaft, which promotes a hot draw that gives him anextra 25 yards without sacrificing control. Smith immediately dubbedMickelson's new weapon "the bomb driver," and to test it in tournamentconditions Phil used it at the BellSouth Classic, played the week before theMasters. At the BellSouth all he did was finish 28 under par to win by 13strokes in the most dominant performance of his career, averaging 309.1 yardsper drive and hitting 80.4% of fairways along the way. (He had been averaging297.2 yards and 57.5% coming in.) For the first time in recent memory Woods wasnot the clear-cut Masters favorite.

The intriguesurrounding Mickelson's twin drivers stoked the larger story of how therevamped Augusta National would play. The soundtrack to the early part ofMasters week was the whining of the players, who were given the outrageous taskof having to hit accurate drives and sometimes use a long iron on approachshots, the latter being a lost art in the driver-wedge game that istransforming the PGA Tour into a Home Run Derby in pleated pants. But to theseeming disappointment of many players and most of the press, HootieJohnson--the Augusta chairman whose fetish for combating increased drivingdistance has led to all the course changes--was exonerated over the first tworounds. The firm and fast conditions suited a wide variety of players, and on awindless Thursday there were plenty of highlights. The 12 eagles were one shyof the first-round record, and Singh shot a bogeyless 67 to take a one-strokelead. One of 18 players in the field of 90 to break par on the first day,Mickelson hit eight of 14 fairways and birdied three of the four par-5s enroute to a two-under 70.

During the secondround a swirling breeze gave Augusta National more teeth, and only threeplayers broke 70, led by Chad Campbell's 67, which propelled him to athree-stroke lead over Singh (three double bogeys en route to a 74), FredCouples and Rocco Mediate. Mickelson was four back after a 72, during which hehit nine fairways and birdied all the par-5s.

Mickelson groundit out over the first two rounds without his biggest fan, his wife, Amy. Shehad been by his side during the early part of Masters week, but on Wednesdayshe flew from Augusta to San Diego to watch eldest daughter Amanda's schoolplay the next day. Dressed as a rainbow, Amanda, 6, had only one line. "Butit was a compelling line," Amy would say later, noting that Amanda had toexplain the properties of a rainbow. Phil was so bummed to have to miss theperformance that he tried to persuade a friend to set up a live Web feed, butit didn't pan out. Amy and Amanda jetted back to Augusta on Friday, with Momarriving just in time to make a 6 p.m. cocktail party.

On Saturday, Amydidn't get to see her hubby strike his first shot until supper time. At 1:02p.m., with the final nine twosomes yet to tee off, rain and lightning forced adelay of four hours and 18 minutes. Mickelson squeezed in five holes beforedarkness halted the round. He didn't make a par, following three straightbirdies with two bogeys. That left him tied for fourth, three back ofCampbell.

Also lurking infourth was Woods, who had putted indifferently during opening rounds of 72-71,but over nine holes on Saturday had six one-putts while going out in two-under34. That he would begin the Sunday-morning restart on the 10th hole was anidentical scenario to last year's Masters, in which third-round play also hadbeen pushed into Sunday because of weather delays. Woods quickly grabbed thelead from Chris DiMarco with birdies on the first four holes of the back nine.When Woods birdied the 10th on Sunday morning, it looked like 2005 all overagain. But he promptly dumped his approach into the pond on 11, three-puttedthe 14th, found the water again on 15 and then three-putted again at 16,marking the first time he had made three consecutive bogeys at the Masters in10 appearances as a pro. Mickelson played the remaining 13 holes of his thirdround in one under, taking the lead at four under--two ahead of Woods andSingh, one up on Couples and Campbell.

During his 31/2-hour break between rounds Mickelson said, "It's going to be an 18-holeshootout." Stunningly, however, Woods came out firing blanks, three-puttingthree times during the final round and repeatedly missing chances inside 10feet. Following a closing 70 that left him three back of Mickelson, Woods saidhis ball striking was "the best I've hit it in years." But, he added,"as great as I hit the ball, that's how poorly I putted. I absolutely lostit on the greens."

The othercontenders also sputtered. While Mickelson was playing the 10th hole, JoséMaría Olaàbal eagled 15 to go to seven under for the round and move within onestroke of the lead, but he promptly three-putted the 16th hole to end his bid.Singh was in the middle of the fairway on both back-nine par-5s, then mademessy pars, ultimately falling four strokes short. Mediate was tied for thelead when he made the turn, but fighting a bad back he rinsed three balls atthe par-3 12th and made a 10. Campbell briefly tied for the lead with a birdieat the 7th, but he three-putted the 11th and played the back-nine par-5s in oneover. Couples, the 46-year-old warrior playing in the final twosome withMickelson, hung around the longest. Unfortunately for him, the purity of hisswing is matched only by the shakiness of his putting stroke. In the finalround Couples missed three putts inside six feet in the first 11 holes, andwith the chance to cut the lead to one stroke, he three-jacked the 14th fromfour feet for bogey. That gave Mickelson a three-shot cushion, and he sailedhome from there.

After saving parfrom a greenside bunker on 10, Mickelson played nearly perfect golf the rest ofthe way, set up by rockets off the tee. He birdied the par-5 13th and 15th byattacking the greens with a four- and five-iron, respectively. "The backnine I drove it as good as I probably ever have," Mickelson said. Three upplaying the final hole, Mickelson was propelled up the hill by a deafeningovation. It was a reminder that around Augusta, as elsewhere, Woods isrespected but Mickelson is beloved. After Phil had tidied up his 29th careervictory, there were no low-flying jumping jacks or cathartic tears, as in 2004,just lots of hugs and kisses for Amy and Amanda and Sophia, 4, and Evan, 3.

Mickelson torehimself from his family's embrace just long enough for the green jacketceremony on the practice putting green. The sunset was throwing off gorgeouslight as the defending champ, Woods, placed the jacket on Mickelson, onlystrengthening their linked fortunes. Last year they made a combined $113million on and off the course, and now each plays only for history. Since thestart of 2004 Mickelson is leading three to two in the only tally that matters,major championship victories. (In that same span Singh and Goosen have oneapiece and Els has been skunked.) The only thing Tiger hates more than losingis losing to Phil. "He played great," Woods said of his primary rival."He peaked at the right time. That's what you try to do, peak four times ayear."

Taking themicrophone to address the throng, Mickelson called Sunday "a day that isgoing to be one of the most memorable of my life, after the birth of my kidsand my wedding." Even in his finest hour he took the time to nod at Woodsand ask the crowd to say a prayer for Tiger's gravely ill father, Earl. "Weall know how important parents are in life," Mickelson said.

This was thesecond straight night that Mickelson had been aglow in the Augusta twilight. OnSaturday evening he was in the middle of the 3rd fairway when the sun finallypopped out at 7:20 p.m. The last of the dark clouds were receding beyond theAugusta National clubhouse, but when the light hit them, a sliver of a rainbowappeared. It was a reminder of the things that a loving dad occasionally missesin the course of making history. Mickelson may have had to skip his daughter'sschool play, but a second Masters victory was a pretty sweet consolationprize.

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Mickelson is beginning to transcend comparisons withhis contemporaries and STIR THE GHOSTS of the alltime greats.
Stunningly, Woods came out FIRING BLANKS, three-puttingthree times and repeatedly missing chances inside 10 feet.
The DEAFENING OVATION was a reminder that aroundAugusta, as elsewhere, Woods is respected but Mickelson is beloved.
PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck CONTROLFREAK
Mickelson put a pair of drivers in his bag, allowing him to hit eithercomfortable fades or hot draws.
After scrambling for par from a greenside bunker at the 10th on Sunday,Mickelson cruised home.
Bidding to become the Masters' oldest champ, Couples was sharp from tee togreen, but he was undone by a balky putter.
Singh's hopes for a second green jacket ended with his missed opportunities onthe back-nine par-5s.
For the first time as a pro at Augusta, Woods made three straight bogeys."I absolutely lost it on the greens," he said.
Sophia (left) and Amanda greeted Dad with hugs and kisses after he won histhird major championship.