Augusta, Ga. | For a week that began with so much rhetoric and continued with layers of thunderous roars on top of crescendos of ovations mixed with reverberations of passion, what brought the 74th Masters into focus was precious silence.
It was what the moment called for as Phil Mickelson embraced his wife, Amy, behind the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11. Squeezed between its official colors – a brilliant blue sky and a vibrant green floor – the Masters was over. The couple’s journey has just begun. “Not much was said,” Mickelson said of the hugs that were emotional to the core.
Certainly, words were not needed at that moment.
Not about the ordeal they are facing together, because what’s to say about a woman’s battle with breast cancer, except to pray for their efforts to meet it head-on.
And not about what had just concluded, for the golf had spoken volumes to prove once again why Augusta National is the game’s most precious amphitheater and the Masters a tournament without equal.
“My all-time favorite spot,” Fred Couples said, and while player after player will echo such a sentiment, it’s become apparent that Mickelson can say it with the greatest conviction.
In becoming the eighth player to win three green jackets, Mickelson rode an eagle-eagle-birdie explosion midway through Round 3; various Sunday escapes that will further cement his dashing, risk-taking image;
a scintillating 67-67 weekend that included a bogey-free Sunday; a 16-under 272 total;
and a love affair with a place that will penalize his loose ways, yet extend to him a chance to make amends.
“At Augusta,” Mickelson said, now in possession of four majors and 38 PGA Tour victories, “you don’t have to be perfect.”
No you don’t, at least not if you have an ability to scramble, and so it was fitting that into such a remarkable environment rolled a main plot that was far from perfect. Certainly, the controversy in which Tiger Woods’ world got turned inside-out made this year’s Masters the most hyped in tournament history, a prospect that while delectable to CBS executives, was a bit disconcerting to club officials.
It was not the intention of the green coats to kick off Masters week with a news conference with Howard Hughes, but there was the world’s most famous recluse on April 5. Woods faced a jam-packed room of reporters for the first time since his post-Thanksgiving accident touched off a firestorm of infidelity charges.
“What I’ve done over the past years has been just terrible to my family,” Woods said.
If his intention was to get it over and done with that day, Woods discovered that wasn’t going to happen. Two days later, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne leveled what can be called an admonishment: “Certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change.”
Stunning stuff from a place where words rarely are passed along for public consumption. But then again, the Woods saga is unprecedented. That is why there was so much trepidation as the week approached, only a funny thing happened on the way to what many believed would be a paparazzi affair.
And not just any golf, either. It was Masters golf on a week when Augusta National was blessed with magnificent, warm, spring weather and officials put forth crowd-pleasing course setups. Oh, it cost the green coats mightily in crystal, as a whopping 34 eagles were made, but that’s a small price to pay – with 87 sub-par rounds and 38 scores in the 60s tacked on as tax – for what rang out from all corners of Bobby Jones’ gift to golf.
Roars. Deep, resonating roars that carry all the way up to the gigantic oak tree at the rear of the clubhouse.
They also supported the notion that for this week at least, and possibly going forward, it was about the golf and not one man’s personal life.
Mickelson and Woods, of course, were central figures to the great golf, though they were not alone. With Couples – who at 50 was playing in his 26th Masters and appears as at-home here as a Georgia pine – leading the way with a 66 and 60-year-old Tom Watson coming in next with a 67, this year’s Masters was off to a rousing start.
It only got better, sprinkled with international flavor as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter – Englishmen and ballstrikers extraordinaire – pushed to the 36-hole lead at 8 under. A five-way group two strokes back featured Woods and Mickelson, who provide to this generation of Masters patrons what Hogan and Snead, then Palmer and Nicklaus, did for those in eras past.
So efficient are these men at Augusta that their numbers look eerily similar. In the 11 Masters starting with 2000, each has now won three times, Woods going 65 under par for his 44 rounds, Mickelson 63 under. No surprise that they’ve shined best over the weekend rounds (Woods 49 under; Mickelson 30 under), but if Woods has enjoyed an edge on Mickelson throughout all corners of the PGA Tour landscape, that is not true at the end of Magnolia Lane.
No, sir. Here, Mickelson is Woods’ equal. He might even be better.
“Phil is a tough guy at this course,” Couples said, and the left-hander went 12 under on the par 5s, 4 under on the par 4s and made only six bogeys.
Chalk it up to an attack mentality that really came forth this time around. “He was,” said longtime caddie Jim Mackay, “incredibly aggressive this week.”
Mackay’s shining example came Saturday, although Westwood attacked first. Charging to the turn in 33, the Englishman birdied the par-4 10th to get to 12 under and open a five-stroke cushion on Mickelson.
Something just had to happen, but Mackay wasn’t sure it had to be at the par-5 13th, not with a hole location well back, on the left shelf. “It’s a hole you can’t really get to,” Mackay said.
Of course, Mickelson got to it, ripping a 7-iron from 195 yards to set up a 8-foot eagle.
“Turned his whole tournament around,” Mackay said, though it was moments later when Mickelson turned on a cheer that must have had 600,000 volts of energy.
So loud was it that way down in that bowl where the 15th and 16th greens sit, a veteran of 22 Masters, Jay Haas, turned his head. Watching his son, Bill, play the 16th, Haas felt the ground shake and said, “Sounds like Phil could have eagled the 14th.”
It’s an unteachable talent, reading these roars, but Haas was spot on. The eagle cheer was that distinct, and by holing his wedge from 141 yards Mickelson now was tied with Westwood.
When Westwood eventually settled for a one-stroke lead over Mickelson and Woods sat four back, Masters officials had three of the world’s top four players leading the way through 54 holes. It appeared to be a blueprint for Sunday magic, but appearances had surprised earlier when Woods was met with a warm, favorable crowd.
Did that go against the senses?
Perhaps, or maybe it hinted that enough was enough, that it was time to move on. Asked how Americans rationalize forgiveness so readily, PGA Tour member Olin Browne offered an observation: “We don’t care how morally bankrupt Hollywood is, so long as we like their movies.” And it came to mind as Woods heard applause at every tee and every green and generated roars with his incomparable talents.
People, it seems, were here not to judge but to be entertained, and that’s what Woods does best.
A whipping 5-iron from 205 yards hooked around the corner set up a birdie at the ninth to highlight a Thursday start that also included two eagles. But when Woods bogeyed three of the first five holes Sunday, he was seven strokes back and in need of a small miracle.
It came in the form of an 8-iron he holed at the par-4 seventh, then backed up with birdies at the eighth and ninth. Still, Woods trailed by three to Mickelson and K.J. Choi, who put up a blistering 33 on the front. Westwood, with a bogey at the ninth, trailed by one.
So we arrived at that spot where the Masters becomes even more magical, the back nine on Sunday, and what happened this year will add to the Mickelson folklore. Part of it includes a book that is so sacred, it is for Mickelson’s eyes only, “and I’ve never really looked through it,” Mackay said.
Having escaped wild drives at the ninth, 10th, and 11th to save par and remain tied, Mickelson ripped a laser-beam 8-iron to 20 feet at the par-3 12th. Then, he pulled the Book of Phil.
Seconds later, Mickelson’s birdie putt fell and he shouted, “Yes,” and on the walk to the 13th tee, the caddie discovered why the exuberance was so amplified at the most serene part of the golf course.
“He said to me, ‘I knew exactly what that putt would do,’ ” Mackay said.
Earlier in the round, at the par-5 second, a Mickelson birdie putt had been sidetracked by something that had fallen from a tree, even though there’s not one “for 60 yards,” Mackay said.
“You have to wonder,” Mickelson said, “is somebody out to get you?”
But this birdie at 12? It was if an omen had been delivered because in his first Masters win in 2004, it was a birdie at 12 that kick-started an inward 31.
Mickelson’s confidence carried onto the pine straw between trees off the fairway at the par-5 13th, even if Mackay expressed doubt.
“I tried to talk him into laying up,” the caddie conceded later. “He said no. Then when I found out K.J. made bogey (at 13, to slip to 11 under), I went at him again.”
Mickelson rejected again.
“He basically said, ‘Listen, there’s an opening in the trees. All I have to do is execute. I’ve got to hit a 6-iron (from 207 yards) onto a big, old green.’ Fair enough, so I got out of the way.”
Oh, how Mickelson executed, and as that white pellet climbed into the blue sky, a gallery that had to be 10 or 12 thick roared with approval. The ball came to rest within 4 feet. No eagle this time, but he made birdie to finish 6 under for the tournament at 13 (he is now 58 under there) and move ahead by two. The lead grew to three when Mickelson birdied the 15th and Westwood didn’t.
“The only disappointing thing on the back nine,” Westwood said of his second shot that came to rest over the green. “I tried to put pressure on Phil, but he played well.”
Westwood (71) birdied 17 to finish second at 13 under. Anthony Kim put up a scorching 65 to finish third at 12 under. Choi (69) was joint fourth at 8 under with Woods (69), who finished top five for the ninth time in 14 Masters as a pro. All of them, however, were supporting actors to Mickelson’s leading role.
Then again, Mickelson showed later that it is he who is a supporting performer – only not in a movie, but a real-life drama that matters so much more than this golf business. On a week that began with so much attention devoted to a family mess that was self-inflicted, Mickelson threw his arms around Amy, who attended a golf tournament for the first time since last May, and looked like he never wanted to let go.
It is then that we learned there is crying in golf. For Mackay, for the entire Mickelson family, and even to many who attended.
“For me, I’ve never been this emotional,” Butch Harmon said, and Mickelson’s swing coach shook his head. “They’re special people and I’m happy to be here to see it with them.”
Through tears, that is.