This story first appeared in the April 19, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Late on Easter Sunday, Phil Mickelson stood over a birdie putt on the 18th hole to win the 68th Masters, and it was as quiet as church. Thousands of fans had encircled the green, glowing from sweat and the most exciting Masters finish since 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus reinvented himself in 1986. Ernie Els, the game's gentle giant, was in the clubhouse after a dazzling 67, having rushed to the lead of the tournament with two eagles in a span of six holes midway through the round. Mickelson had chased him down with a back-nine charge for the ages, and now, having endured countless heartbreaks in his decade-plus pursuit of a first major championship, Mickelson was facing the most important putt of his career, 18 feet that meant so much to so many.
Behind the green was Mickelson's wife and college sweetheart, Amy. She had been blinking back tears since the 15th hole, so overwhelming was the emotion of the day. Nearby two sets of grandparents were passing around Phil and Amy's three young children, including Evan, who had just turned a year old. In March 2003 Amy and Evan had both nearly died during childbirth. Phil was so shaken by the trauma that he sleepwalked through the 2003 season, his worst in 12 years on the PGA Tour.
In San Diego, Mickelson's 92-year-old grandmother, Jennie Santos, was resting comfortably in front of the TV. She had been getting ready to leave for Augusta when she suffered a mild stroke. Just before Christmas, Jennie's husband, Al, had died at 97. He had adorned their kitchen with the 18th-hole flags from each of their grandson's first 21 wins on Tour. Finally, in 2002, he told Phil that the only flag he would accept was one from a major championship. Shortly before his death Al whispered to Phil that this would be the year he broke through.
All of this feeling and personal history was distilled into one downhill, right-to-left putt. At last Mickelson nudged his ball toward the cup. He had been on the other end of one of these life-changing strokes, Payne Stewart's 18-footer for par on the final hole of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. At that moment Amy was in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to slow the signs of labor, as their first child, Amanda, was on the way. When the putt dropped, dealing Mickelson another in a string of devastating defeats, Stewart took Mickelson's face in his hands and told him that becoming a major champion could not compare to becoming a father. Now, five years later at Augusta National, Mickelson was on the verge of being both.
The putt crawled toward the hole. Moments earlier Mickelson had studied playing partner Chris DiMarco's unsuccessful effort from virtually the same spot. "Chris's ball was hanging on that left lip, and when it got to the hole, it just fell off," Mickelson said. "And my putt was almost on the identical line. Instead of falling off, it caught that lip and circled around and went it. I can't help but think (my grandfather) may have had a little something to do with that."
The crowd exploded, a release years in the making. Mickelson did a low-flying jumping jack and screamed, "I did it!" His longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, rushed over for a hug. Mickelson walked behind the green and scooped up his daughter Sophia. "Daddy won! Can you believe it?" he said. He wrapped Amy in a long, tearful hug. The 18th green at the Masters has seen some of golf's most memorable displays of emotion. Phil and Amy were in almost the same spot where Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, embraced after Tiger's victory in 1997. The final green is where Ben Crenshaw was doubled over in agony and ecstasy after having been guided to victory in '95 by the unseen hand of his teacher Harvey Penick, who died two days before the tournament began.
Now Mickelson had joined the pantheon of Masters winners. After 17 career top 10s in the majors, including three straight third-place finishes at Augusta, he had proved himself in the most audacious fashion imaginable. On a course that is far tougher than it was in '86, when Nicklaus shot a back-nine 30 to surge to victory, Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes to finish with a 31 on the final nine on Sunday. He became only the sixth player to win the Masters with a birdie on the 72nd hole, a list that includes Arnold Palmer, who had a birdie-birdie finish in 1960.
"Now we can finally stamp him APPROVED," said Davis Love III, a close friend of Mickelson's. "It's like a...what's the right word?... It's like a coronation."
You can't have a coronation without the King, and over the first two days Mickelson and every other competitor had to take a backseat to Palmer, who was saying goodbye to Augusta after 50 years of mythmaking. Palmer was the first player to win four green jackets, between 1958 and '64; the Masters is where his Army first marched. As he said goodbye on Friday, the pines echoed with the roars from the standing ovations he received on every hole. At 18, in a golden twilight, Palmer tapped in for a final bogey. Behind the green he kissed a pretty girl — his fiancee, Kit Gawthrop — and then he was gone.