• Phil Mickelson’s 6-iron play to the 13th green on Masters Sunday was the fitting moment that will define his Hall of Fame career. It’s the shining symbol of the game’s biggest risk-taker since Severiano Ballesteros, if not Arnold Palmer.
Sometimes you get the impression Mickelson would double his bet when trying to pull a card for an inside straight in poker. At the least, he’s a golf swashbuckler who has a hard time resisting the urge to attempt threading the needle when in trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t work: Remember the failure from right trees at 16 at Bay Hill a few years ago and, of course, the 2006 mess on 18 at Winged Foot? Sometimes it succeeds in spectacular fashion: Squeezing his ball through a tiny opening in trees on No. 10 at the 2007 Players Championship was the conspicuous precursor to the latest heroics.
That’s the deal when you’re a riverboat gambler. You either sink or swim.
The fresh version, of course, was a 207-yard shot off pine straw that slipped through a small gap between two big trees, sailed over Rae’s Creek and ended up 4 feet from the hole. At once it embellished his reputation and in effect cemented his third Masters victory.
But the shot heard around the golf world was far more than the latest top entry on a sparkling personal resume. It ranks high on several lists, including this one: Best full-swing shots on the final nine holes of a major championship.
We’ll let the historians fight over the order (and they will), but this one, all things considered, is somewhere close to the rear-view mirror of Gene Sarazen’s double eagle and in the mix with U.S. Open 1-iron shots struck by Jack Nicklaus in 1972 at Pebble Beach, Ben Hogan at Merion in 1950 and Byron Nelson in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club. I’m also partial to the 170-yard 7-iron shot that Woods pulled off after driving far right on 15 in the 2008 U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines: sidehill lie, ball beneath his feet in a bunker on another hole, trees in front and somehow his ball ended up 12 feet from the hole.
Quite often the most memorable moments on the last nine at majors involve putts, chips or pitches. We give you Jack Nicklaus’ bomb on 16 at the 1975 Masters, Larry Nelson’s cross-country putt at the 1983 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods’ 2008 checkmate conversion on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines and, of course, crazy chip-ins by Larry Mize and Woods at the Masters and Tom Watson at the 1982 U.S. Open.
The list goes on. That’s the thing about great shots. They make people pull out lists and amend.
• Mickelson’s victory will go down in the record books as some sort of number: 16 under par, third Masters victory, fourth major, whatever. What the archives won’t show as they gather dust is the true significance:
It was a blast of fresh air when golf needed it most.
• Tiger Woods’ swing and happy face weren’t on Sunday, but his heart was. The pictures and numbers only add up when you factor in his will.
I’ve never seen him more wildly inconsistent. He hooked his opening drive onto the ninth fairway, popped up two drives, left a shot in a bunker, half-skulled a chip over the third green, three-putted from 7 feet and hit trees with two shots on No. 11.
Mickelson didn’t have exclusive claim to amazing.
• Masters runner-up Lee Westwood came up painfully short again in a major. That’s his bad news. His good news is that in the past 22 months, he has spliced together a top-3 Grand Slam – his Augusta second preceded by a third at the 2008 U.S. Open and ties for third at the ’09 British Open and PGA.
At the moment, that body of work is the highlight of his career.
That could change this summer. He figures to be in the major mix again. The Englishman loves Pebble Beach, site of the U.S. Open, and has learned to like the Old Course at St. Andrews, the British Open showstopper site he used to loathe until he won the 2003 Dunhill Links Championship there.
• The Open at Pebble could be as juicy as the Masters. Certainly the table setting appears delicious.
Woods has won three Opens, including the last one at Pebble, by 15 strokes in 2000, golf’s most remarkable feat.
Mickelson has won the AT&T Pebble Beach event three times and finished second at the U.S. Open five times.
Two words: Can’t wait.
Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.