December 17, 2007

The People's Choice

Fan favorite Phil Mickelson finally gives himself and his faithful what they've always wanted--a major title

Phil Mickelson wins a thrilling Masters in 2004.

Phil Mickelson wins a thrilling Masters in 2004.

He already had reinvented himself before his golf ball made the 180-degree pirouette around the left lip, hung on for dear life, then came to rest at the bottom of the 18th hole. Reality swears it all happened in a split second, but we know better now, as does the man for whom time had become both a trusted friend and deceptive enemy. It took 12 years for that putt to fall, 43 major championships as a pro and perhaps a dozen heartbroken endings, at which point the prodigy's lien on tragedy warranted an overhaul in strategy.

Phil Mickelson, you may recall, told us he would never change. Aggression was his hallmark, a don't-think-twice necessity in this golden age of power--the reason he had won 22 PGA Tour events in the first place. You don't mess with success, even when success makes a mess. In the spring of 2002, a defiant Mickelson unleashed a self-defensive blast at his growing legion of critics. Playing the game his way, he explained, was more important than winning any trophy, cashing any paycheck or forging any compromise with someone else's idea of greatness.

Then came 2003. A terrible year by Mickelson's standards, a nine-alarm wake-up call for even the most stubborn of superstars. "I'd never gone out [to Arizona] for five days during the first week of January," said swing coach Rick Smith. "Not ever." The two men worked almost exclusively on hitting fairways and stiffing wedges--accuracy with the long clubs, distance control with the short ones. As if to prove that talent has no conscience, Mickelson won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in his first start of 2004.

Still, it wasn't anything he hadn't done before, which takes us to the congratulatory phone call President Bush placed to Butler Cabin on the grounds of Augusta National GC last Sunday evening. Mickelson, you might say, was finally ready, clearly willing and no longer waiting. His final-nine 31 could not have done more to eradicate a decade of high-profile transgressions, nor would anything less have sufficed to claim his first major title on the 43rd try.

With birdies on five of the last seven holes--including a 20-footer at the 18th--Long Overdue Lefty leapfrogged a stunned Ernie Els to win by a stroke, posting a back-nine 31, the best finish by a Masters champion since Jack Nicklaus ravaged the final nine with a 30 in 1986. The similarities between the two tournaments should not and will not end there. "I don't think any Masters will ever compare to '86, but for me, this one does," Philly Mick said. "I don't really know how to tell you how awesome this feels."

That isn't to say he didn't try. "Almost make-believe," he said later. "Almost like it's not real. The most difficult part of this 10-year journey has been--I don't want to say failure--but dealing with the losses time after time. It gets frustrating. It can wear on you."

So, too, does the newest addition to his wardrobe. Having said two years ago that he would never alter his style of play, Mickelson may need twice as long to change jackets. This blazer may be bright green, but it looks a hell of a lot better on his shoulders than an 800-pound gorilla. "I never doubted this was going to happen," said longtime manager Steve Loy. "I just wish it would have happened a long time ago."

If Nicklaus' sixth Masters title was a miracle marinated in tears, Mickelson's triumph was an emotional earthquake--a long-awaited statement from a man burdened by his competitive shortcomings and the impact they've had on his family. "This week was probably a little easier for me," said Mickelson's wife, Amy. "That's because the emotion wasn't coming from Phil bending shots around trees or [hitting shots] over the greens, things like that. He was in control this week, and that was very different. The pressure was more from par putts than the usual magician shots he does."

As was the case in 2002, when his pursuit of Tiger Woods ended with a triple bogey at the par-5 13th, Els was inconsolable afterward. He was on the practice green preparing for a playoff when Chris DiMarco, playing in the final group with Mickelson, left his third shot in the bunker fronting the 18th. At the risk of becoming a slight annoyance, DiMarco quickly played again from the sand. His ball carried directly over the flag and stopped three inches above Mickelson's coin, meaning DiMarco's attempt for bogey would be on virtually the same line as Lefty's birdie putt for the win.

How close were they? Mickelson had already moved his mark before DiMarco arrived to clean his ball. "I was loving it," admitted Jim Mackay, Mickelson's caddie since Lefty turned pro in 1992. "He hit the shot, and it released, and I'm yelling, 'Go! Go!' I think Phil told him to go ahead and knock it in."

DiMarco's ball tracked dead to the cup before tailing left over the final eight inches, at which point Mickelson had seen enough. "Because his putt was so fast, I had a great look at it, every inch of break," Mickelson said. "I gave mine about six inches and it just hung on the left edge."

Sometimes you're good, sometimes you're lucky. On the 72nd hole of the 68th Masters, Mickelson was both. "Hey, the man upstairs was there for him," Els said after regaining his composure. "He earned this one. He's gone through a lot, but I had this image in my mind all day that I'd finally be wearing that green jacket. This is a tough one, you know?"

Indeed. Since the par-5 eighth, where Els ripped a 5-iron from 223 yards to five feet, then converted the eagle putt, he had been the man to beat. Another eagle at the 13th pushed the Big Easy's lead to three strokes, at which point Mickelson was offering few clues as to how he'd slide his arms inside a pair of emerald sleeves. In fact, Lefty was standing on the 12th tee when Els rolled in the eight-footer on 13. "I heard the roar, so I figured he'd made eagle," Mickelson said. "I took a pretty aggressive line at the 12th--nobody goes after that pin."

Mickelson

Photo: Devin Black

For a man whose career has been stunted by miscalculated gambles, this one paid off. "I knocked it in there to about 12 feet and made the putt," Mickelson added. "I knew if I made that one and birdied 13, I'd be one shot back with five holes to go."

It set up one of the most unforgettable finishes in Masters history. Having yielded just seven aces in 67 tournaments, the par-3 16th produced two in back-to-back groups (Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett). Els made a spectacular par save at the 14th, but Mickelson almost holed out from the same fairway, tapping in from less than a foot for his third consecutive birdie. Els had picked up a stroke by getting up and down for birdie at No. 15, but it was the last he would make. Mickelson, meanwhile, was just getting started.

"You would think a [bleeping] 67 would be enough," snapped Els' caddie, Ricci Roberts. "My man did all he could do. This wasn't meant to be."

The boy could not have been more than 7 or 8 years old, but from his vantage point on a mound near the 16th green in the Friday twilight, with the late-afternoon sunshine casting diagonal rays through a stand of towering Georgia pines, the kid could see all there was to see. Unlike his previous Masters encore in 2002, when rain pushed Arnold Palmer's last good-bye into a gloomy Saturday morning, this was a setting worthy of a king.

"C'mon Arnold!" the boy yelled, oblivious to the fact that Palmer was 23 over par.

It was a touching moment transcending several generations of golfers, the kind of stuff you don't see anywhere else. "I'm through," Palmer said. "I've had it. I'm done. Cooked. Washed up. Finished. Whatever you want to call it."

Gone but never forgotten, of course, Palmer's grand exit made this a Masters full of reflection, not objection. Play began Thursday morning under heavy gray skies and news far gloomier than any passing shower--the death of Bruce Edwards, 49, Tom Watson's caddie for most of 30 years. Arriving at Augusta National shortly before 6:30 a.m., Watson received a call on his cellphone. A bad connection prevented him from receiving any immediate details. It was the only poor reception he received all day.

Watson needed almost an hour to empty his heart at a post-round news conference. "I saw Bruce three weeks ago, and he was in pretty good shape," he said. "He had a little problem breathing, but once again, we had our normal bet on the NCAA tournament. He beat my butt again. I owe him $100. I'm gonna take that $100 bill and frame it."

Both the 18- and 36-hole leads were the sole property of Englishman Justin Rose, who hit 32 of 36 greens on a golf course where two yards often meant the difference between birdie and bogey. Mickelson, Els, Davis Love III and Fred Couples all had gathered on nearby branches of the leader board, which could explain why Rose needed 42 strokes to play the front nine Saturday. Woods, meanwhile, resumed his bad-round, good-round trend, following a hideous 75 with a tidy 69. "Just have to take baby steps," Tiger cautioned Friday. A third-round 75 turned Woods' forward movement into a backward crawl. He finished tied for 22nd at 290, 11 strokes back and never a factor.

Mickelson

Photo: J.D. Cuban

Mickelson has shot hundreds of scores lower than the 69 he posted Saturday, but few rounds in his career have been better executed or more appropriately timed. Love and Couples checked in with 74s. Two-time champ José Maria Olazábal, two strokes off the pace heading into the weekend, turned in a 79. You could feel the buzz surrounding Mickelson as early as the third hole, where a 15-footer for birdie earned him a share of the lead (at four under) for the first time all week.

Amid his own problems--an error-filled, putt-starved 76--Charles Howell III spent much of the afternoon inspecting golf's latest extreme makeover. A high, controlled fade frequently left Mickelson a full club behind his playing partner, but he was hitting shots and giving himself opportunities, playing percentage golf on a course where the margin for error had become frighteningly slim. "He's not hitting it as far, but he's making aggressive swings," Howell noted, sounding as though he'd just witnessed a boxer, not a puncher.

The bogey-free performance earned Mickelson a share of the 54-hole lead at 210, and thus, a spot alongside DiMarco in Sunday's final twosome, from which the last 13 Masters winners had emerged. Dunking hunks of prime rib into a bowl of salsa Saturday evening, Els, three strokes back, did not sound all that keen on a history lesson. "I'm ready for this more than I've ever been ready for it," he said. "I can handle the disappointment. I've felt it before."

Nothing, however, could prepare him for Sunday's photo finish. "Nobody could figure out what happened to [Mickelson] last year," said Nick Price. "He's got such a wonderful short game--he got away with [inconsistent ball-striking] for so long. Maturity is one thing. He's maturing as a golfer." A perfect example came at the par-5 eighth. Mickelson grabbed his driver and sent Mackay up the fairway, then had second thoughts and made his man walk all the way back to the tee to exchange it for the 3-wood. You think that would have happened a year ago?

A drive into the left rough at the par-5 15th forced Mickelson to punch a layup through the trees. It was a shot very similar to the one he tried to hammer through the timber (and over water) at the '02 Bay Hill Invitational, a ridiculous play that took him out of the tournament. He settled for par this time around, knowing the back-left pin at the 16th was a perfect match for his ball flight. A stock 8-iron left him 10 feet below the hole. "When the putt on 16 went in, it made for an awesome experience," Mickelson said. "There were a lot of people around that green, an awesome variance of emotions and intense fan [reaction]. It was very different than, say, the putt on 12, where there was nobody around."

Over the course of 72 holes last week, there might have been 12 to 15 instances where Mickelson resisted the urge to force the issue with a bold play. It might have been a putt on the seventh green, a line off the tee at the 12th--or the 18th hole Sunday. Tied with Els, who sat near the scorer's area munching an apple, Mickelson hit another 3-wood down the chute, 20 yards short of the fairway bunkers, knowing a mere 8-iron would grant him access to that precious portion of real estate between the front pin and middle tier.

Mickelson

Photo: Stephen Szurlej

"He's always had all the shots," Smith said. "He's just using them a little more often."

A man can plot all he wants, but he still has to execute. "I have so much better control now over my distance and direction," Mickelson said. "When I set up for [the approach into 18], I've got something in my swing that we've worked on where I can aim at the pin and know it won't go right of that, it can only go left. I just try not to let it go too far left."

It didn't. Come to think of it, neither did the winning putt, the final stroke in one of the greatest Masters ever, a tournament so compelling that even the competitors themselves were left shaking their heads in disbelief. "It's rare I become interested in what's happening if I'm not in the lead," said tournament rookie Paul Casey, who hung around well into the back nine and finished tied for sixth. "If I'm not right in the mix, I'm not interested, but I was genuinely interested in what was going on out there. You became a fan as much as a golfer for a while. It was remarkable stuff."

Alas, there was at least one unsatisfied customer. "I promised Samantha last week that I'd win this one for her," Els said, referring to his 4-year-old daughter. "Man, is she gonna be pissed."