Phil the Thrill Brings the Roars Back Home

published April 12, 2010

“A great shot is when you pull it off.  A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”

Phil Mickelson provided a bookend quote on Sunday to his “I am such an idiot” that followed his U.S. Open blowup at Winged Foot.  He provided a bookend shot, too, a spectacular six-iron from behind a tree on the thirteenth hole that cleared the creek guarding the green by just a few paces and settled four feet from the cup.  The resulting birdie kept him two strokes clear of the field, and he played error-free golf down the stretch to win his third Masters title.

For all the talk of the world’s number-one golfer and his reemergence, it was the third-ranked Mickelson who took hold of the tournament on Sunday and made his own return to winning form.

It has been a tough season for Mickelson, with his wife Amy coping with the effects of cancer treatments.  He had just one top-ten finish in seven events, has spent less time at the tournament venues, and has traveled the Tour without his family.  He said he was primed for the year’s first major, but he has said the same thing about every major since his 2006 Open collapse, and has come up empty every time.

The week began with the focus elsewhere, but Lefty exploded into the forefront on Saturday by going eagle-eagle-birdie to move into a tie for the lead.  He finished the day one stroke behind Lee Westwood, who had never before held the third-round lead in a major.  With Westwood – fourth in the world rankings – paired with Mickelson, directly behind the world number one, the stage was set for the most anticipated final round in years.

Unique among major venues, Augusta National has been a place where great players go out and win a title by making dramatic shots rather than trying to minimize errors.  At the U.S. Open, as Johnny Miller says so often, pars wear white hats; at the Masters, there are birdies and eagles to be made, particularly on the back nine.  But the last ten years have seen few such fireworks, thanks to some misguided tweaks to the course to keep modern players from overpowering it.  Under ANGC chairman Billy Payne, the group that sets up the course for the Masters has taken steps to undo some of the changes from the prior regime, looking to bring the roars back to the course, especially on Sunday.

Their efforts were a great success.  The world’s best dueled throughout the day, five players were within three shots at the halfway point, and the top nine finishers were all under par for the round.  There were more scores in the 60s on Sunday (eleven) than there were in the entire tournament three years ago (eight).  Anthony Kim was among those who took advantage of the benign conditions, going five under in four holes before leveling off for third place.

Mickelson turned in the only bogey-free round of the day, through it was hardly uneventful.  He got favorable bounces off trees and spectators, saw a birdie putt get knocked off line by a piece of tree fuzz that appeared out of nowhere, and swung his driver freely and with confidence, knowing that the stands of pines at Augusta National can accept his loose shots and still make great recoveries possible.  There are broad swathes of green grass at Augusta — yet Phil managed to miss it entirely with three straight tee shots on 9-10-11, but made par from the pine straw on each of them.  Then a birdie on the deadly little par-three twelfth was followed by his signature shot on the par-five thirteenth, and the tournament was effectively over.

Westwood, K.J. Choi, and Fred Couples all had their moments, but it was Phil’s day to silence the doubters once and for all.  He now has three green jackets, and it’s an interesting question whether Mickelson can catch and pass his rival’s accomplishments on the course that had once seemed tailor-made for him.

“That’s a win for the family,” Jim Nantz said as Mickelson’s birdie putt dropped on the final hole. The family was waiting behind the green, and Phil and Amy hugged for a long time, sharing a victory whose meaning only the two of them can know. “To have her here and share this moment and share the joy of winning on 18 and to share this with my kids is something that we’ll look back on the rest of our lives,” Mickelson said afterward.  “This means so much to us to be able to share this type of jubilation; I don’t know what word to describe how excited I am, we are.”

“Excited” is good.  So is “vindicated.”  Phil the Thrill is back.

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