2004 Masters: Mickelson is finally a Masters champion

Augusta, Ga. | On a week when golf mourned the loss of the radiant Bruce Edwards, the Arnold Palmer of caddies, and bade the real Palmer an emotional farewell on storied fairways he has traversed for 50 years, golf needed a shining beacon at the Masters, a tiny sliver of light among the darkening clouds.

Thank you, Phil Mickelson. He may have looked a little like a startled Dean Jones in one of those old, fluffy, G-rated Disney flicks, but as the 2004 Masters movie unfolded, admit it – Lefty looked pretty good in green.

“Daddy won!” Mickelson exclaimed, cradling his 4-year-old daughter, Amanda, just moments after his 18-footer for birdie at the 72nd hole gently caressed the left edge of the cup and made up its mind to dive in, delivering Mickelson’s first major championship and ending the biggest drought this side of Wrigley Field. “Can you believe it?”

His smile was equal parts excitement and disbelief. With all he’s been through, all the heartache and close calls and endless impositions of doubt, who could blame him?

Longtime teacher Rick Smith got through the crowd and engulfed his pupil in a bear hug. “Do you believe it?” he asked Smith. “Oh, man.”

Oh, man. Believe it. Major Phil. Finally. It didn’t arrive the way many thought it might, with Mickelson simply the last man standing on a day he played OK and others around him fell. It arrived with a proven warhorse, Ernie Els, playing exceptional, flawless golf, and Lefty – this time the Sunday pacesetter instead of the hunter – playing brilliantly, slamming the door with five birdies on the back nine. Nobody handed him his jacket; this is one he commandeered.

So what does it all mean? Well, the guy who has everything really has everything now. Not that winning at Augusta National puts more cars in his driveway (Fords, we presume), makes that big a difference in his bank account (he earned a career-best $1.17 million), buys him a larger jet, makes his teeth whiter or gets him better tee times on Thursday-Friday. But suddenly it makes a very, very good career a great one. It solidifies a resume worthy of entrance into the World Golf Hall of Fame. And it means the green jackets at Augusta National will be watching ol’ Lefty wander out the back door of the clubhouse and past Augusta’s famously huge oak tree until his grandchildren are caddying for him.

Shortly after fellow southpaw Mike Weir slipped the jacket over his shoulders, Mickelson had a message for Augusta National’s members: “Please get used to me. I’m going to be back every year.” Which means Byron and Arnie, Jack and Tiger now will sit around the Champions Dinner on Tuesday nights and hear all they ever care to know about ‘subcutaneous fat’ and life in other orbits.

Hey, Fuzzy, pass the catsup, would ya?

Mickelson joked that no Masters ever can compare to Jack Nicklaus’ famed back-nine run in 1986, “but for me, this one does.” Sure, the moment was fab for Phil. But you know what? It was tremendous for golf, too. In the Tiger era, we suddenly have another proven major contender alongside Ernie and Vijay. And the way Phil won won’t soon be forgotten. It may never be forgotten. Mickelson said he’ll remember that back nine on Sunday forever. He isn’t alone. It was magical, Augusta National at its finest. A Masters for the ages.

Despite a hardened, bulked up golf course, there were eagles and there were echoes on Sunday, and no shortage of either. With revisited apologies to B.B. King, maybe the thrill isn’t gone after all. It certainly helped that the Masters powers-that-be decided to give Atilla the Hun the weekend off when setting pins.

With an incredible story already unfolding – nine players within two of leader Ernie Els as Mickelson and Chris DiMarco putted on the 11th hole – the Masters decided to shift its Wednesday Par-3 Contest to Sunday. All of a sudden, guys were making everything – and we’re not talking putts. K.J. Choi holed a 5-iron for eagle at 11. Mickelson nearly holed a pitching wedge at 14 (leading to his third consecutive birdie). And Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett aced the par-3 16th in successive groups.

Off the 18th green, Harrington was so excited about the action behind him that he politely cut short a radio interview, pleading, “Hey, the Masters is going on out there.”

And so it was. Els made two eagles of his own at Nos. 8 and 13, garnering two pairs of spiffy crystal goblets. Before the round, Els’ wife, Liezl, had kidded the Big Easy that they hadn’t collected any crystal on this trip to Augusta. “Don’t you want the (winner’s) trophy?” he retorted.

That and the jacket (46 long) were Els’ for the taking until Mickelson turned into Jack Palmer on the back nine. Or was that Arnold Nicklaus? He was a man of the people, wading his way through the incredibly supportive crowds just as Palmer had earlier in the week. Saturday, you’d have thought Mickelson, not Charles Howell III, was Augustan by birth. How supportive was Phil’s Army? When Els went up by three on Sunday, one Philly Phanatic turned to another and said, “We’ve got to pull a Tonya Harding on Ernie.” Alas, no worries. As it turns out, Mickelson had plenty of golf game to go along with his Macy’s Parade gait.

A few years ago, this writer was standing next to the putting green at Augusta National when a graying Gay Brewer, the 1967 Masters champion, slowly made his way to the first tee. Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen studied every step and said, “I’d love to be that guy, to be able to come back here every year.”

Mickelson now has that chance. Get used to his ugly mug being around, he joked. No more questions. Does he care enough? How badly does he want a major? Can he be a great player without one? Will he ever win the big one? In the time it takes to slay the venerable back nine at Augusta National, he silenced every query. Rather emphatically, we may add.

“I don’t know if we’ve changed everybody’s attitude whether they think Phil can play this type of golf or not,” said Mickelson’s longtime agent, Steve Loy, “but you’ve got to love that type of win – whether you doubted him or you’ve always believed in him.”

Sunday at Augusta, where it counts, he made both camps believers.

Major Phil. Finally.

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