June 25, 2007

The Best Sunday Augusta ever had

Kindly hold on a moment while I see if I can take six or seven sizes off of this typeface so I can get it down to 14 point and maybe birdie the first page of this column on the 2004 Masters. Do a Phil Mickelson thing for journalism.

It shouldn't be any more difficult than Mickelson taking six or seven yards off of that magnificent 146-yard wedge shot that gave him a tap-in birdie at the 14th hole at Augusta National on Masters Sunday. His most crucial shot of the day, for my money.

Pause now while all of us scream: A HUNDRED-AND-FORTY-SIX-YARD WEDGE? ARE YOU KIDDING?

OK, good. That's over. And the typeface is fixed. Easy as taking six or seven yards off of my own scooped or bladed 98-yard wedge.

Now all I have to do is try to avoid hooking a sentence into some cut-and-paste neighborhood that will closely resemble the spot where Ernie Els' golf ball wound up on Saturday.

I mean that time in the third round when Ernie's ball came to rest among the roots, twigs, leaves, sticks, rocks and limbs of a place that looked so strange and far away you'd have had a hard time getting a National Geographic photographer to go in there. This was after he'd hit a soaring golf writer's hook off the 11th tee.

I fear there's no silly rules official around who can rescue my sentence the way this guy did Ernie's golf ball. It could have been the free drop that won the Masters. Els got out of the "ice storm debris" with a bogey 5 when a double or a triple was what he deserved.

The rules official who permitted the incomprehensible relief — and I shall withhold his name out of kindness to his family — must pardon me if I say it looked like a lift out of Uganda and onto I-20 near Augusta.

Like countless other golf folk, I will be dwelling on such things for quite a while because of the theatrical ending to this year's tournament.

It was my 53rd Masters in a row, and I must confess that in all of those years I have never seen anything as thrilling, exciting or dramatic as Phil Mickelson's victory.

Yeah, that Phil Mickelson. The guy with the enormous promise tainted by a record of failures in majors. He went out in the Big Heat on Sunday, and first he survived it, then he courageously stood up to the Big Easy coming down the stretch and sensationally won with golf shots instead of the mistakes of others, and thereby buried all of his past nightmares and, I hope, all of our bad jokes about him.

You may want to note that the all-important statement above comes from the man who years ago first said — and wrote — that the Masters always starts on the back nine Sunday.

I should have copyrighted it. Then Jim Nantz and everone else would have to go through Fort Worth, Tex., to use it.

Masters Sunday was a feast of brilliant golf shots and clutch putting strokes, to be sure, and it was obviously the confirmation of Mickelson, but it needs to be said that the public couldn't have lost no matter who won, Phil or Ernie. Which is why it was so memorable, so historic.

It came down to a battle between the other two best players in the world today. The battle of the anti-Tigers.

What to compare it with?

I can think of only three prior occasions that encouraged me to hop around and holler, "Smote my forehead!"

The first that comes to mind is 1960, when the last round began with as gaudy a leader board as you could wish for. Arnold Palmer, the same one who retired again at this year's Masters, led by a stroke, followed by five illustrious names: Ben Hogan, Julius Boros, Billy Casper, Dow Finsterwald and Ken Venturi.

Slowly it evolved into a Palmer-Venturi conflict, and when Ken reached the clubhouse with a final-round 70 — on a rugged, windy day when no one shot in the 60s — he looked like the sure winner, and everybody was happy about it, seeing as how he'd been a cruel loser in '56 and '58.

But that's when Arnold birdied the last two holes to nip Venturi by a stroke — when Arnold started becoming the guy who brought tears to the eyes of so many fans — and eventually himself — as he made his last competitive trudge at the Masters on Friday. On Thursday morning upstairs in the clubhouse grill I told him I'd already had my Masters thrill: I'd just seen 20 people do the gallery deal around him as he was getting out of his car. He did laugh.

Second, consider 1975. That was the year Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf, all at the peak of their powers, came roaring down the stretch on the final day, each one looking like the winner at times.

Jack finally put them away with his immortal 1-iron shot to the 15th and his monster birdie putt at the 16th. Although that drama ended with both Miller and Weiskopf missing putts on the final green, it was indeed a war to remember.

Third, because the criteria should be name-on-name, no lukewarms allowed, there's 1986. Nicklaus the tear-jerker that time. A 46-year-old Nicklaus firing a last-round 65 — beating Mickelson's 31 on the last nine holes by a stroke — and blowing away five glamour names: Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Nick Price and Tom Kite.

The only reason I wouldn't put '86 ahead of Phil's triumph is because it ended with failure on the last hole — Norman and Kite missing putts to tie Jack — instead of the 18-foot birdie putt that the suddenly tough Mickelson sank to defeat Two Eagles Ernie, heap big winner of three majors.

To me, one of the nicest things about Mickelson's victory is that he's a guy who's loyal, unlike another star we know. Phil's caddie, Bones Mackay, and business manager, Steve Loy, go back more than a dozen years.

Other nice things about Phil are that he's accessible, unlike another star we know, plus he's talkative, he's interested in other sports, and despite his fame and wealth, which were already in evidence, he was hard at work to trim his physique and improve his game long before he arrived in Augusta a week early, Hogan style.

Incidentally, Phil didn't ask Mark O'Meara how to do any of that.

Attention, all Tiger lovers: In case you missed it, he finished in a tie for 22nd at Augusta, was never a factor and lost his seventh major in succession. So I'm definitely calling it a lull.

Because Tiger claims to be competing for major championships against Nicklaus in the record books, I will point out that after Jack had won seven, his biggest lull in his prime was 12 majors without a win, from the last two of '67 through the first two of '70.

As we know — and surely Tiger knows — Jack fought his way out of it and won 10 more by the end of 1980. The sixth Masters in '86 was cake.

Nicklaus is the exception to the "window theory" on putts, having been the only guy to make them for 20 years. Every great the game has known, except for Jack, has enjoyed a period, a window, of making darn near every big putt for eight, nine, 10 years — then the door slams.

Tiger may have hit that wall. Forget the "swing plane." Surely every good golfer realizes that when you start missing putts, it eats away at the rest of your game like a poison. Tiger was tied for 35th in putting at Augusta.

The only thing wrong with Tiger is, he's gotten so bogged down in mechanics that he's lost his intuition. It'll be interesting to see if Tiger sticks with what he's doing, whatever that is, or goes back and rediscovers what he did to become great.

Meanwhile, here's another question: Now that Phil Mickelson has done it, who's the best current American player who has never won a major?

I look around the dismal landscape and see only one answer.

Michelle Wie.

To comment, send e-mails to: jenkins@golfdigest.com.