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68th Masters one of the most memorable ever

Capped by Phil Mickelson's long-awaited major breakthrough on Sunday, the 68th U.S. Masters will go down as one of the most memorable in the tournament's history.

Fans at Augusta National were treated to a breathtaking display of shot-making over the closing holes, with Mickelson and South Africa's Ernie Els rising to the fore in one of the game's greatest duels.

Left-hander Mickelson, with five birdies in the last seven holes, covered the back nine in 31, trumping the earlier efforts of Els, who appeared to have a fourth major title within his grasp after eagling the eighth and 13th.

Twelve eagles were made on the last day, South Korea's KJ Choi producing the most exhilarating when he holed out from 220 yards with a five-iron at the par-four 11th.

As if that was not enough, Ireland's Padraig Harrington and American Kirk Triplett both aced the par-three 16th, doing so within minutes of each other to lift the decibel level to unprecedented heights in the opening major of the year.

"It was unbelievable, probably the loudest I've ever heard it," said Els, after finishing a stroke behind the triumphant Mickelson.

"The one Kirk made in front of us on 16, I never saw the shot but I just heard that roar. And then KJ on 11, that ball never left the flag. It was great stuff. It was great golf."

For Mickelson, who had toiled long and hard through 46 previous majors without success, the experience was unforgettable.

"It sure felt like it was something special," he said. "I could tell through the roars for the most part what was going on. It made for an awesome experience."

Mickelson's back-nine of 31 was just one shy of the record low for a winner at Augusta, Gary Player achieving 30 in 1978 before Jack Nicklaus followed suit in 1986 to clinch his sixth and final Masters victory.

Nicklaus, then aged 46, began the final day four strokes behind leader Greg Norman but turned the tournament on its head as he finished birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie-par.

"I don't think any Masters will ever compare to the '86 Masters but, for me, this one does," said an emotional Mickelson, after becoming the third left-hander to clinch a major title.

The 33-year-old Californian follows Canada's Mike Weir, winner of last year's Masters, and New Zealander Bob Charles, British Open champion in 1983.

Brilliant shot-making aside, there was much, much more to treasure at the 68th Masters.

Baked by eight days of unbroken sunshine before Thursday's opening round, famed Augusta National was able to bare its teeth for the first time since the course was controversially lengthened in 2002.

Always beautifully manicured with slick, heavily contoured greens, the layout became firm and fast-running, providing the world's best golfers with a severe examination of their skills and shot placement.

Many Augusta regulars said they had never seen the greens in better shape, nor the course play so difficult.

If Mickelson's highly popular victory provided the week's emotional climax, then four-times winner Arnold Palmer provided the nostalgia.

The 74-year-old golfing great, widely acknowledged as Augusta's 'King', finally bowed out of the Masters after his record 50th consecutive start.

"I'm through, I've had it, I'm done, cooked, washed up, finished, whatever you want to say," he said, after exiting the tournament at 24-over 168 after successive rounds of 84.

"I won't say I'm happy it's done. It's time for it to be done, for me."

Champion in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964, Palmer brought the curtain down on his brilliant competitive career at the Masters after a day of standing ovations from a teary gallery.

In his pomp, he was all swagger, a shot-maker extraordinaire with his muscles rippling as he launched into the ball without restraint after a trademark hitch of his pants.

The people's champion for half a century, the 'King' picked an appropriate time to sign off after a lifelong love affair with the first of the year's four majors.

Sunday's shot-making at Augusta was very much in his style.

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