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A feel good Masters win for Phil Mickelson
April 14, 2010

The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the next leg of a Grand Slam that only Phil Mickelson can win this year, brings back mixed memories. In his professional debut there in 1992, Mickelson opened with a 68 and was only two shots out of the lead.

The next day, he shot 81 and missed the cut.

That seemed to set the tone for his roller coaster of a career, good times and bad, rarely a dull moment.

No one should ever question the greatness of Mickelson. He was the last amateur to win on the PGA Tour. Only 10 other players have won more than his 38 titles on the PGA Tour. And his Masters victory Sunday made him the first player to win three straight tournaments against a field that included Tiger Woods, the previous two coming at the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

While Woods has had a revolving door of rivals, Mickelson has passed through the most times.

The question is how long Mickelson stays there.

No one bothered to ask him Sunday about his chances for the Grand Slam, perhaps because so many other moments were still fresh.

The signature shot of this Masters was his 6-iron off the pine straw, through a gap in the Georgia pines and over Rae’s Creek to 4 feet on the 13th hole. The signature moment was his emotional embrace behind the 18th green with his wife, Amy, on the golf course for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer. It tied a pink ribbon around a Masters like no other.

Now, looking ahead, a green jacket usually bodes well for Mickelson.

When he won his first major in the 2004 Masters, he gave himself a chance to win them all.

Mickelson had the U.S. Open won until a double bogey from the bunker on the 71st hole, and Retief Goosen had a putting performance that ranks among the best. Lefty finished one shot out of a playoff in the British Open at Royal Troon. And he was in contention late Sunday afternoon at Whistling Straits until finishing two shots out of the playoff at the PGA Championship.

After winning his second Masters in 2006, Mickelson was on the cusp of capturing the U.S. Open—and a third straight major—until he unwisely chose to hit 3-iron that clattered off a tree and led to double bogey on the final hole at Winged Foot.

No other major means as much to him as the U.S. Open, at least for now. Mickelson already holds the record with five runner-up finishes, including last year at Bethpage Black when a slab of mud on his ball and three putts on the 15th hole derailed his inspirational run.

Mickelson is a three-time winner at Pebble Beach, although the course is perceived as Woods’ playground. It was at Pebble Beach in 2000 that Woods set a record that might never be broken, winning a U.S. Open by 15 shots.

Such dominance, however, might have had more to do with Woods’ game than the course.

Augusta National, meanwhile, might have been more responsible for Mickelson winning the Masters than his game. It is the one course that puts Mickelson at ease, knowing that no matter where he hits a shot, he’ll usually have a chance at the next one.

“I’m relaxed when I drive down Magnolia Lane because I know that I don’t have to play perfect golf,” Mickelson said, alluding to his three par saves— Nos. 9, 10, 11—as evidence.

What made him a Masters champion for the third time—he now is closer to Woods’ four green jackets than Woods is to the six won by Jack Nicklaus—is the very style that has caused so many to question Mickelson.

“Phil won this tournament because he was such an aggressive player,” caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay said Sunday. “He’s talked about in the past how it’s a big part of how he plays and why he feels like he has so many wins. There were so many times this week when he had the choice of taking the aggressive approach or the conservative approach.”

One of those came at the par-5 13th hole—on Saturday.

Mickelson was five shots behind in the third round when he took his tee shot down the trees and along Rae’s Creek, leaving him only a 7-iron to a pin tucked on a shelf in the back right corner of the green. Mickelson hit his approach to 8 feet for eagle to begin an amazing run of eagle-eagle-birdie that made up the deficit and sent him on his way.

“I think the 7-iron that he hit on Saturday was the shot that in a sense, got him on a roll to winning this tournament,” Mackay said.

What made Sunday’s shot on the 13th so spectacular was more about the decision than the swing. The lie was clean. The trees were close enough that the ball wouldn’t stay in the air very long before getting past them. It was a 6-iron. And this was Phil Mickelson, one of the best players in the world.

He had a one-shot lead over Anthony Kim, who was nearly done with his round, and was two clear of Lee Westwood, the greater threat. Mackay, as he has done so often, tried to persuade Mickelson to lay up. Mickelson, as he has done so often, ignored him.

“And he hit maybe the best shot I’ve ever seen him hit,” Mackay said.

Mackay could barely speak when it was over as he tried to control his emotions, a losing battle. When someone asked how this compared with his other majors, the caddie replied, “Twenty years from now, nothing will compare to it. I can guarantee you that.”

Emotionally, probably not.

But there are still three majors left this year.

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