Augusta, Ga. | Hard to believe, but Phil Mickelson was once the “0-for” man in the major championships, a minor bit player at golf’s biggest shindigs. He would rise like a phoenix, his immense talent taking him near the top, only to inevitably plummet, from Louisville to Long Island, many times in a kaleidoscope of ill-advised on-course decisions and hell-bent longshot risks.
He played like his hair was on fire.
His futility streak was something truly major, reaching 42 of these history-making affairs over his first dozen years as a pro, with no big baubles on the mantel, and needless to say, no green jackets. And now, quicker than Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson can lengthen a golf hole, Mickelson has gone from zero to three on the major scale.
He’s a major force. That’s major news.
Down Magnolia Lane, the 70th Masters was dominated by talk of change. Big change.
Byron Nelson wasn’t on the grounds for the first time since 1935, and for the first time since 1954, there was no Palmer or Nicklaus in the field. The storied National – showing stretchmarks after being lengthened to 7,445 yards – was looking more bulked up than Barry Bonds. Never has 4.23 miles of lush green carpeting been so critiqued.
Few fans noticed the biggest change of all, though, and it was right beneath their white Masters bucket hats. It was Mickelson. Now 35, he’s all grown up, especially as a golfer. Longer than ever – with either of the two Callaway drivers he carried – and blessed with an engraver’s skilled touch around the greens, Mickelson now has the cerebral approach that has equipped him to capture major championships.
And he’s finding out how fun that can be.
“He’s figured out how to win them,” said his swing coach, Rick Smith. “He’s figured out how to do them in his mind. I always said, he wins one, who knows how many he’s going to win? He’s that talented. That good.
“It’s time to keep going. The next one is four, so let’s go after it. The sky is the limit now.”
The lid has popped, and Lefty is on quite a run. His Sunday stroll at Augusta, where he closed with a near-flawless 3-under 69 to reach 7-under 281, two shots better than South African Tim Clark (69), was equal parts blue-collar and artistic. A group of five players (including Tiger Woods) tied for third, three back.
Mickelson seized his second consecutive major (after winning the PGA at Baltusrol in August), his second green jacket (to keep the one he collected in 2004 company) and his third major in nine starts. He moved to No. 2 in the world. And now he owns more majors since the start of 2004 than You Know Who.
Without prompting knee-jerk rivalry talk that begins each time one of the Big Five other than Woods steps up to win a major, Mickelson appears as armed as anyone to take on Woods. In fact, the manner in which Mickelson won on Sunday was very Tiger-like. He stayed patient, capitalized at opportune times, and let others take risks and fall back. The Great One himself, poised to win a fifth Masters title and 11th major, never quite fired, held back by a putter he used 33 times in a closing 70.
Woods, playing with a heavy heart as his father, Earl, battles terminal cancer at home in California, had given it everything he had, and afterward graciously slipped the champion’s blazer over Mickelson’s broad shoulders. The last three Masters have gone Mickelson-Woods-Mickelson. Sense a trend?
“He peaked at the right time, right before the major (in Atlanta) and obviously this week as well,” Woods said. “That’s what you try and do. You try to peak four times a year. He’s done that once, and he has three more to go.”
Sunday at Augusta included a morning finish of the lightning storm-delayed third round – fast becoming a Masters tradition – and set the table for a wild shootout. So many players seemingly had a chance, too, with 20 golfers within five shots of Mickelson. At one point in the final round, five players were knotted at 4 under par. But in the end, time ran out on Clark and balky putting derailed Woods and Fred Couples, the latter trying to duplicate Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 feat by winning the Masters at age 46. The other contenders – with the exception of two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who shot 66 but started too far back – simply could not muster a charge.
Mostly, Mickelson did not allow it. He made a nice birdie at No. 7 and took advantage of the par 5s, using his power to tack on three more birdies. In all, he covered 31 holes in 4 under Sunday. For the week, he played the par-5 holes in 13 under, seven shots better than Woods. And this time he got to enjoy the stroll up the last hole.
“When I look back on it, I think what I’m most proud of is that I didn’t let other people back in it,” said Mickelson, whose only glitch came on the final hole, when he short-sided himself and surrendered the day’s lone bogey-free round. “They had to come and chase me down and make birdies to do it. That’s what I was proud of.”
Making birdies on the new National, as 90 players found out among the tall pines and bright azaleas, ain’t quite the easy task it once was. This isn’t your father’s Masters anymore. For that matter, Ike is out of office, coffee isn’t a nickel and most players now arrive by private jet, not by train.
For a good portion of the week, the famed Masters “tooniment” took on the feel of a U.S. Open, with players conservatively plodding along, trying to make pars and avert disasters. Amid calm conditions Thursday, three players broke 70; Friday, when pins were more accessible but the National’s mysterious swirling winds began to dance, three more players broke 70. It played tough. Vijay Singh made three double bogeys in a round.
Many of the names popping onto the giant board that stands sentinel over the 18th green – Woods, Clark, Singh, Rocco Mediate, Retief Goosen, Olin Browne – belonged to players who had generally fared well at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst last summer. And into the weekend, a Campbell even figured prominently – this time Chad, not Michael, who held the 36-hole lead.
“You make 72 pars here and you’ll finish fairly high,” Mediate said prophetically before the tournament. “Four 70s might win the golf tournament. I’d take that right now and run. Hey, it’s a major. It’s supposed to be hard.”
The addition of 155 well-placed yards to the golf course and the rare presence of firm, fast conditions most of the week produced a different type of Masters leaderboard than others seen in the new millennium. It wasn’t purely Bomber Ball at the top. Medium hitters such as Mediate, Clark and Miguel Angel Jimenez stayed into the hunt well into Sunday afternoon. Through 36 holes, 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw was 1 under par and tied for 10th.
“It favors the long hitters, no question, but the medium hitters can still play it,” explained Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion who made his first cut at Augusta since 2000. “Instead of a 7-iron vs. a wedge (for shorter hitters against the bombers), now it’s a 5-iron vs. their 8-iron. In some ways, you like that. You’d rather go against an 8-iron than a wedge. That’s a positive, definitely.”
The first hole was lengthened 20 yards, to 455, and funny enough, the first player to birdie it was 70-year-old Gary Player; the tee at the par-3 fourth hole, when played all the way back at 240, produced new sounds of fairway metals, and sometimes even drivers; the seventh, originally a driver-pitch of 340 yards with nary a bunker, is now 450, with players hitting mid-irons into an undulating green guarded by five bunkers. You get the idea. Asked about the lengthened 11th hole, a par 4 that now measures 505 yards, Colin Montgomerie said, “Holes that start with a ‘5’ and it says ‘Par 4’ are generally a problem.” The 11th yielded six birdies all week. Ebenezer Scrooge was less miserly.
Some fairways were pinched in, so that players hitting it 280-300 yards had more generous landing areas than a player, say, trying to smoke it 330 or so. “If he’s going to swing from the heels, if he doesn’t execute perfectly, he’s going to pay a price,” Johnson warned, citing the long-hitter’s lament.
Johnson had proclaimed the club “comfortable” with the changes against early-week criticism. He may have been onto something. Certainly this year’s final round had more players in the mix and more potential drama than a year ago, when Woods and Chris DiMarco broke from the field. The entire Big Five started Sunday with a shot.
Armed with two drivers – one for cut shots and a longer one to hit draws – Mickelson took on the new-look National and never flinched. He came up with his designated driver strategy when he traveled to Augusta for two days of practice prior to the BellSouth Classic, where he’d later work on the plan and blitz the field by 13.
“It turned out to be unbelievably helpful, to be honest,” said Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim (Bones”) Mackay.
How so? Mickelson absolutely pounded his second driver, the one weighted to help draw the ball. He was paired with Ernie Els, no short knocker, the first two rounds, and sent drives 50 yards past Els at times. At the par-5 second hole Sunday, for instance, most players stood on the tee and looked at a landing area of about 20 yards to avoid a fairway bunker that had been deepened 3 feet. Mickelson simply smashed a drive (ITAL)over(UNITAL) the bunker, to a landing area of 50 yards.
The whole package came together nicely. Length, touch and sound course management blended tightly into a virtuoso performance. When Mickelson needed to make a big shot, he pulled it off. When he needed a pivotal putt, he holed it, making a nifty 6-footer at 10 to save par and keep a one-shot lead over Couples, who was hunting for his first green jacket since 1992.
It’s no secret the Masters is Couples’ favorite tournament. When he gets there, he gets energized. His instructor, Butch Harmon, noted early in the week that Couples seemed “feisty,” and that’s a good thing. At 46, Couples made his 22nd consecutive cut at Augusta, but that’s never the goal. The goal is to contend, and with his length – he finished second only to Mickelson in driving distance (295.7 yards) – he is able to do that.
Sunday, Couples three-putted the 11th to drop two shots behind, but rallied with a birdie at 13 and stuffed an approach shot 4 feet from the flagstick at 14. He hit the putt with too much pace, and it spun out, finishing 5 feet past. From there he missed the par putt, too. Instead of walking off the green one stroke down, the deficit was three. Despite missing several tiddlers, he shot 71.
“I mean, I can live and die with three-putting and some of the other stuff,” said Couples, “but that really is a putt (at 14) that would have been a heck of a lot more fun to make and see what would have happened.”
Though both were 46, Couples is closer to his 47th birthday (Oct. 3) than Nicklaus was in 1986, when the Golden Bear summoned a charge by shooting 30 on the second nine to win his sixth Masters.
“I’m 46. I don’t really feel 46,” said Couples. “I didn’t hit the ball like I was 46.
“I putted like I was 66.”
In the end, his putter did not do in Couples as much as Mickelson, his old Ryder and Presidents Cup teammate. For 15 years the Masters’ final twosome on Sunday had produced the champion, and form held. The two chatted throughout the day, encouraging each other to soak in the unique atmosphere of playing so late on Sunday at such a magical place, walking the same fairways that Nelson, Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus have marched through various eras.
Golf had to wait a long, long time for Phil Mickelson to jump into that historical picture, but all of a sudden, here he is, leaping in front of the lens, holding his third major title.
“He’s got guts,” said Mackay. “You know what I mean? He’s got guts. It always seemed to me that things were going to fall into place. I’ll be honest. He’s so good, things were going to fall into place for him, I thought.”
Everything falling snugly into place sure beats the old days, when it was a revved-up Mickelson who seemed to do most of the tumbling. If only we all knew then what we all know now.
Looking dapper in the champions’ blazer as darkness descended, Mickelson had a message to deliver before joining some greencoats for a celebratory dinner upstairs in the stately clubhouse.
“You know, I’d like to say something about the changes real quick,” he said, then paused with a devilish grin. “I really like ’em.”
Course changes? Or changes within?
Suffice to say, both.