Phil Mickelson captured his third Masters this weekend with heroic play. His last twenty-seven holes provided plenty of thrills and included a series of shots that will define his career. He won with brilliant iron play, great touch around the greens, and with a flair for the dramatic. All in all, Mickelson provided riveting theatre for the patrons of Augusta National. The victory answered lingering doubts over the scars he accumulated at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Since then, the man known as Lefty has been a non factor on most major Sundays. Many wondered if he’d ever break through and win one of the game’s biggest events. Could his driver hold up on the final day? Would he blow a couple short putts? Would golf fans witness another back nine meltdown? These questions remained. Phil set out to answer them.
Perfect weather and ideal scoring conditions greeted the players as they teed off Saturday. Phil Mickelson entered the third round two strokes off the lead. He played a solid front nine, going out in two under thirty-four, but watched as the leader began pulling away. Lee Westwood, the co-leader coming into Saturday, looked to win his first major championship and jumped out of the gate intent on bringing the course to its knees. The Englishman birdied the opening hole, snuck in another birdie on the treacherous par three fourth, capitalized on the par 5 eighth, and stole another shot from par by knocking in a quick, downhill fifteen footer at the long tenth. He stood at four under on the day and twelve under for the tournament. At that moment, he seemed destined to win the title. Phil Mickelson appeared to be running in place and falling further away from the lead.
That changed quickly. As Westwood stood over his birdie putt at the tenth, Phil Mickelson looked down the fairway at the par 5 13th. At 510 yards, the 13th is a hole that Mickelson had eagled on day one and birdied on day two. He needed to take advantage of this opportunity. He prepared his tee ball and picked his target. The hole has a wide sloping fairway that bends from right to left. It required Mickelson to position his tee ball in the left center of the fairway for the ideal position into the green. But Mickelson had to be precise. A pushed shot to the left risked going into Rae’s Creek (which lined the left side of the fairway and ended in front of the green) while a pulled shot would land “Lefty” in the woods.
Mickelson bombed his drive but looked at it with hesitation. He pushed it slightly and it appeared like it might clip a branch on the pines situated next to Rae’s creek. The ball got through trouble and Mickelson was left with two hundred five yards to the hole. As he checked his yardages and selected a seven iron, Westwood rolled in a birdie putt on ten to move five shots in front of Mickelson. The left hander hit the shot pin high, ten feet right of the hole. He jarred the uphill putt for an eagle three and jumped to nine under and three behind.
Lee Westwood got through the difficult par 4 eleventh with a four and moved to the par 3 twelfth. He hit a loose shot out to the left of the green, chipped to nine feet, and couldn’t convert the par save. His bogey four dropped him to eleven under and only two in front of Mickelson.
Lefty poked another three hundred yard drive down the fourteenth fairway and was left with a hundred thirty nine yards into the hole. He chose a pitching wedge and hit a towering shot. The ball landed softly behind the hole and the slope kicked it back towards the pin. As the gallery looked on, Phil posed and wondered just how closely his ball came to the target. The ball landed, hit the slope, and tracked right into the bottom of the cup an eagle two. Just like that, Mickelson had back to back eagles and found himself tied for the lead with Westwood at eleven under.
Roars echoed through the Georgia pines after Lefty’s holeout. Mickelson went to the fifteenth tee looking for an improbable three straight eagles. He hit a loose drive out to the left side of the fairway. Trees stood between his ball and the flag stick. The bad angle forced Mickelson to lay up his second shot and rely on his short game to get up and down. Minutes later, Mickelson found himself eighty nine yards from the hole. He selected sand wedge and hit a shot right at the cup. It landed ten feet short of the hole and took a bounce. The ball rolled just like a putt and kept tracking for the hole. It rolled, took the break to the left, and finished a foot away from the hole. A tap in birdie four put Mickelson at twelve under par.
In thirty five minutes, Lefty vaulted himself back into contention and right in the thick of things. He bogeyed the seventeenth hole and finished the round with a five under sixty-seven and sat one shot behind Lee Westwood. The two would play the final round together.
Sunday arrived with blue skies, bright sunshine, and with little wind, giving players another day of perfect scoring conditions. The field took advantage of the scoring conditions. Miguel Angel Jimenez had an early tee time and shot a brilliant sixty-six to vault into a share of twelfth place. Anthony Kim had a late afternoon tee time and began the day in the top ten, but a distant seven shots back of Westwood at five under. He posted a sixty-five and finished third.
These men showed the leaders that low numbers were out there.
The last pairing played an uninspired front nine. Mickelson drove the ball all over the place but used his short game to score. He began the round with seven straight pars. He moved to twelve under with a birdie at the par five eighth to move to twelve under par. Then he began missing the fairway left. His drive found the woods at nine and forced him to chip out in front of the green. A splendid pitch gave him three feet for par. He drilled it to go out in one under thirty five.
Mickelson selected driver at the tenth and missed the fairway wide left in the woods. His second shot landed just short of the green and left Mickelson with a delicate chip. Once again, stellar touch helped him save his par. At eleven, Mickelson took out the big stick and missed left again. He hit a miraculous hook over the pond and onto the green where he two putted for another par.
This took him to the twelfth. A year previously, his Masters comeback stalled at the devilish par three. Paired with Tiger Woods in 2009, Mickelson roared out of the gates and shot six under thirty on the front side. He came to the par three and hit a ball short into Rae’s Creek. His dreams sunk with that golf ball. This time, Mickelson exorcised those ghosts and hit a solid nine iron twenty-two feet behind the hole. He struck a brilliant putt that rolled in firmly for a birdie two.
The last hour showed Mickelson at his artistic best. He assessed all the angles, selected the shot needed, and pulled it off. Phil with a wedge is like a neuro seurgeon with a scalpel in hand. It fit perfectly. When locked in, magic happens. No one gets out of trouble with the grace and effortlessness of Mickelson. He controlled the spin and has the touch of a concert pianist on the keyboard. The sound, the emotion, and the feeling are all there. It is a sight to behold. Thunderous ovations show the crowd’s appreciation for the brilliance they’d just witnessed. After all, it was a virtuoso performance.
Immaculate touch, inspired wedge play, and a hot putter helped save Mickelson’s final round. His birdie at twelve put him at two under for the day and thirteen under for the week. All of a sudden, the tournament appeared to be his.
Westwood had stalled and failed to get anything going on the front nine. Other challengers like KJ Choi and Tiger Woods found trouble and couldn’t make a sustained charge. If Mickelson converted on the par five thirteenth, he’d likely grab his third green jacket.
He stood on the tee and took out the big stick. The club crushed the ball. He hit it too well and the ball raced through the fairway and into the woods. As he approached the ball, Mickelson had a decision to make. Chip out and rely on the short game to get up and down for a birdie four. Or put the peddle to the meddle and hit a daring shot off the pinestraw, between two trees, and over Rae’s Creek.
Longtime Mickelson viewers know that Lefty always plays aggressively. This has led to disaster in 2002 when he tried to hit a low slice through the woods and hoped to skip a ball across the water onto Bay Hill’s sixteenth green. The shot ended up wet and Mickelson took a double bogey. It also brought unbelievable drama and out-of-this-world excitement. Several years later, Lefty found himself in the woods at the eighteenth hole at Colonial. He hit an impossible shot over all the tree trouble and landed it fifteen feet from the cup. Minutes later, he rolled in the birdie putt and won the tournament.
But this wasn’t Bay Hill or Colonial. This was the Masters. This tournament defines careers. Would Mickelson rue his decision? How would the action unfold?
He took out a six iron and planned to hit the ball through the narrow gap between the trees. As commentators second guessed and the crowd looked on in bewilderment, Mickelson struck the shot. It took off like a laser and never left the flag stick. It landed like a sand wedge and took a soft bounce forward. The ball finished six feet from the hole.
Holy Cow! What a shot. He had done it. Mickelson drove a nail through the heart of his playing companion and answered all his critics. His daring gamble paid off big time.
Mickelson capped of the tournament in style. He two putted for birdie at thirteen and birdied the fifteenth to move to fifteen under. Pars at sixteen and seventeen brought him to the home hole. There he looked to put an exclamation mark on his performance. He hit a short iron fifteen feet right of the hole and drained the putt to finish with a bang. A birdie three, a back nine thirty-two, and a round of sixty-seven.
He amazed everyone and left all speechless.