2004: The Masters - Ful-Phil-ment

Augusta, Ga.

Give the 68th Masters fourth round its own highlight reel, stamp it unreal and stock it in the Must-See TV section of the archives. The toonamint, as they say in these parts, kept serving a buffet line of tasty drama down the stretch. And everything came supersized: Big names, big shots, big eagles, big long-range holeouts, big leaderboard changes, big emotional swings, big roars.

And the beast that hopped off Phil Mickelson’s back was on the rather large size itself.

“I don’t think any Masters will ever compare to the 1986 Masters,” Mickelson said of Jack Nicklaus’ record sixth title at age 46. “But for me this one does.”

Mickelson, of course, for years had worn the dark label of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major Championship. Now he wears a green jacket, size 43L. Now he’s passing the BPNHWMC hot potato far down the food chain to, whom, Padraig Harrington?

“Usually I keep my speeches short, but I don’t get this opportunity very often,” Mickelson cracked during the victory ceremony on the Augusta National putting green.

Mickelson for years had been tormented at the wire in majors, victim of his own blunders or someone else’s brilliance, leaving him with 16 top-10 finishes but no hardware. This time he was the Payer instead of Payee. This time, in his 43rd major as a professional, he overcame a three-stroke deficit by playing the last seven holes in 5 under par despite only parring the par-5 15th.

“It feels almost make believe,” he said. “Almost like it’s not real.”

The thought ran throughout a family conditioned to a life shy of trophies at majors. “It’s very, very surreal,” wife Amy said. “Is this real?”

This time he crowned a back-nine 31 with an 18-foot putt that slipped in the left side of the last hole, the course’s second most difficult, making him only the fourth person to win here by making birdie on 18. This time he yelled, “I did it!” This time he threw the dagger, and it hit ErnieEls, another heavyweight. This time he wasn’t Phil Mickelson The Third, his place here each of the last three years. This time he secured a bottle cap that will ensure induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame someday.

“This is a fulfillment of my dreams,” he said after shooting 9-under-par 279, one stroke better than Els managed with a closing 67. “It was an unbelievable back nine. It’s something I can relive forever and ever.”

And this time – at 33, the average age of a Masters champion – he won with a new, improved control game that suggests he will be a threat in many more majors. Having rededicated himself over the winter, having replaced a draw with a reliable high cut off the tee, he led the field in greens in regulation at 73.6 percent and tied for ninth in driving accurary at 73.2. If you aren’t sold that this is a new, more accurate Mickelson, consider that he ranked 107th in GIR (64.8 percent) and 189th in fairways hit (49 percent) on the 2003 PGA Tour.

“It’s just a so much easier game keeping it in play,” said Mickelson, who two years ago maintained he would never change his aggressive, length-at-all-costs style. “I wish somebody would have told me this earlier.”

Mickelson’s before/after pictures are Hair Club dramatic. Last year he didn’t win a tournament, didn’t finish among the top 30 wage earners, didn’t win a point during an 0-5 Presidents Cup, didn’t keep his tee ball in play and didn’t let on that Amy had such a difficult pregnancy that her life and baby Evan’s were in jeopardy.

He lacked peace in his life and balance in his swing. So he refocused at year’s end. Scientist Dave Pelz helped him improve his short game and distance control. Longtime instructor Rick Smith helped him shore up his swing balance and driving accuracy.

“I drove it better this week, this year, than I ever have,” Mickelson said. “The biggest thing is I’m not giving shots away trying to make birdies.”

Mickelson also worked out regularly, dropped weight and gained strength and flexibility. So he came out this year with a better swing, game, body and strategic plan. And he came here prepared, having worked at Augusta National with Smith on Monday and Pelz on Tuesday the week before the tournament.

“He’s not relying on trick shots and his fabulous short game to make up ground,” Amy Mickelson said. “The end of last year was the all-time low. I’ve been really amazed the way he’s handled this year, to walk the walk and make himself better.”

“He’s a different player now,” Smith said. “He has control of every aspect of his game. He just said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ ”

Already this year, Lefty has won twice and has eight top 10s in nine starts. Prone to make the untimely double bogey in past majors, the new Mickelson had a streak of 34 holes without a bogey until No. 3 Sunday. He put himself in the 54-hole lead of a major for the first time, then enhanced his reputation as a front-runner, converting for the 10th time in 14 tries when leading entering a final round.

“From an internal standpoint, it’s one of the biggest reliefs of his entire life to have it off his back,” Smith said.

Though Mickelson said he didn’t feel relief, others in his camp did. “It’s over,” a beaming Steve Loy, his agent and former college coach, said while slapping a high five. “The party can begin.”

Mickelson’s celebration was only a few minutes old when he recalled his late grandfather Al Santos, who died in January at 97. Santos had a wall display of flags from Tour events Mickelson won, a total now at 23. He told Mickelson that he had enough Tour flags, that he wanted one from a major, and shortly before dying said, “This will be the year.”

“I can’t help think he might’ve had something to do with it,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson entered the final round tied for the lead at 6 under with friend Chris DiMarco. Before they teed off, Smith noticed a more relaxed Lefty, one who was talking about “solar eclipses and traveling through space.” Amy said when he left their rented house, he told her, “This feels different.”

Smiling his way around the course, Mickelson was the 14th Masters winner in a row to come out of the last pairing. He was also the record sixth consecutive first-time major winner. But, interestingly, he was not the winningest player ever to win one. Ben Hogan had won 30 times and Sam Snead 27 before claiming their first majors.

“In the past 10 years I’ve come so close . . . the hardest part was dealing with losses time after time,” Mickelson said. “Having it be so difficult makes it that much more special. When you achieve your goal, the harder the struggle is, the greater the reward.”

His battle was uphill after he made three bogeys in four holes on the front and Els eagled two par 5s – the eighth from 5 feet, the 13th from 10. Mickelson walked to the 12th green three shots behind Els, who was two groups ahead. Mickelson made the must-have 12-footer on the Amen Corner par 3 and started fantasizing. “When that went in,” he said, “I started feeling I can make this happen.”

Mickelson followed with a two-putt birdie at 13 and a tap-in at 14, where he stiffed a wedge from 146 yards. He didn’t birdie 15 after blocking a drive behind pines on the right and laying up, but he pulled even with Els at 8 under when he sank an uphill 15-footer at the par-3 16th.

Els made tricky par saves at Nos. 9, 11, 14 and 16 to go with his two eagles, but he bemoaned his putting, calling it “mediocre” for the week. “My putter didn’t want to work,” Els said.

He had a chance to stay ahead of Mickelson but missed birdie putts of 16 and 18 feet, respectively, on the final two holes. He also cruised the edge on makeable birdie putts at Nos. 10 and 12, the latter from 10 feet. Still, he shot 34-33–67 and called his last 13 holes the “best I’ve played around here.”

“I felt so good out there I felt I could birdie every hole,” said Els, who the day before got a favorable free drop from a pile of debris deep in the left woods at No. 11. “I played as well as I can. What more could I do? Phil deserved this one. He didn’t lose it like some of his other ones. He won this one.”

He won it at the difficult 18th – a hole that yielded only two birdies Friday and five Sunday–on that downhill 18-footer that broke 6 inches to the right. Mickelson caught a break because DiMarco putted first from the same line. Before DiMarco stroked his, Mickelson walked by and said, “Show me something.”

It was precisely the same major message the golf public has had for Mickelson for a decade.

“It was cool,” DiMarco, who fell back when going 5 over on Nos. 3-7, said of the winning putt. “Really to be honest, I didn’t think there was any way he would miss it. It was just time. It was meant to be for him.”

When the putt went in, Mickelson said, his first thought was, “I finally did it. I knew I could, but I did it.”

Mickelson did it despite playing the 16 par 5s in only 5 under, compared with 13 under for Els. Where he got the better of Els, though, was Amen Corner. He was 5 under on Nos. 11-13, Els even.

Mickelson did it on a day when back-nine pins were more accessible than usual, particularly at Nos. 13-16. Four players closed with 31s on Sunday, when the back played more than a stroke easier than it had any other round. The incoming nine yielded seven eagles Sunday, compared with 13 the first three days.

Tournament officials clearly wanted more closing drama, and they got it. And the theater went beyond the Mickelson-Els duel. Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett aced the 16th only 10 minutes apart, and third-place K.J. Choi holed a 210-yard 5-iron at 11. The pace was fast and furious, the noise thundering.

“It was unbelievable,” Els said. “That’s probably the loudest I’ve ever heard it. That was exciting. If you are a fan watching on TV, it was great stuff.”

Mickelson also got it done on a week in which world No. 1 Tiger Woods was never a factor. Woods had the same score on the first nine holes (40) as 74-year-old Arnold Palmer, who shook more hands than a politician on the campaign trail while playing his 50th and final Masters. Woods opened with a 75 and entered the final day having shot over par in seven of his last 10 rounds. That’s five more than he had the entire 2000 season.

Woods won seven of 11 majors through the 2002 U.S. Open but is winless in the last seven. His tie for 22nd was his worst Masters finish as a pro. Still, he said his game is “not that far off” and that he could have won had he putted better.

It was not lost on Mickelson that Woods, long an impediment to the left-hander’s possible glory, was nowhere to be seen. “It doesn’t suck, I’ll say that,” Mickelson said with a smile after the third round.

Mickelson’s new style hardly stinks, either. In fact, Saturday night he sounded like someone ready for a different level and garment.

“It’s been much more difficult for me to win major championships than regular Tour events,” Mickelson said. “That’s starting to change. I feel like it’s much easier for me to get in contention in majors than a regular event. I do know, if I’m fortunate enough to come through and win that green jacket, you’ll be seeing my dumb mug here every year for the rest of my life.”

He did. We will.

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