Inspired by his cancer-stricken wife, Phil Mickelson earned his third green jacket and his greatest victory ever

He began his comeback with a perfect drive punctuated by his familiar cocky twirl of the club. But there was something different about Woods on this day, at least for a little while. He has always played in a bubble, distant and aloof, but as Tiger strolled down the 1st fairway, he made eye contact with fans who were 10-deep along the ropes, smiling and mouthing thank-yous. (In short, he acted like Mickelson.) Woods gradually got his game face on, and by the time he poured in a six-foot birdie putt on the 3rd hole, it felt like just another spin around Augusta, albeit in fewer strokes. Taking advantage of a benign setup, Woods shot a 68 that was his lowest first-round score at the Masters and also the first time he had made two eagles on the same day at Augusta National.

As it became clear that Woods's myriad skills were undiminished, the gallery found its voice, cheering for him lustily. This was either the ultimate example of the redemptive power of sport or merely the latest evidence of how self-deluding people can be in today's cult of personality.

Woods's 68 left him two back of 50-year-old Fred Couples, whose game has been rejuvenated by beating up on Champions tour geezers. In a group of five a shot off the lead was Mickelson, who beginning on the 13th hole went eagle, birdie, birdie en route to a little-noticed 67. Friday was dominated by English blokes Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, who reached eight under to set up afternoon tee for two in the third round's final pairing. A well-played 70 moved Woods to third place, two strokes back and tied with Mickelson, who shot a 71, much to the displeasure of Harmon, who slumped forlornly against the ropes on the 14th hole and offered a succinct report on his pupil's game: "Playing beautifully. Putting horrendously."

Mickelson found other ways to get the ball in the hole on Saturday as he turned golf's most pressure-packed tournament into his own little game of H-O-R-S-E. He arrived at the par-5 13th hole puttering along at one under for the day and in danger of being left behind by Westwood, who had birdied four of his first 10 holes. Mickelson played a risky drive that hugged the left side of the fairway, hard against Rae's Creek. He was rewarded with only 195 yards to the flag, and he followed with a seven-iron to 10 feet. Eagle. After a good drive on 14, Mickelson had 141 yards left. With his pitching wedge he dropped his ball 10 feet left of the pin, and it obligingly spun sideways into the hole. Eagle, eagle. In Mickelson's gallery, as always, was Phil Sr., who declared, "That's as loud as I've ever heard it here."

Most players would have been elated with their good fortune. Stepping to the tee of the par-5 15th, Phil the Thrill was getting greedy. "I was trying to make a third [eagle]," Mickelson said, with one of his naughty schoolboy grins. A bad drive seemingly eliminated the possibility, but after laying up to 87 yards, Mickelson danced his wedge shot over the hole, stopping the ball a few inches away. Augusta National fairly shook, and Mickelson was only mildly disappointed to settle for a tap-in birdie.

After the round Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, and his agent, Chubby Chandler, commiserated behind the 18th green, trying to come to grips with what had befallen them. "Going down 11, we were five up," Foster said. "Then all of a sudden we were one down."

"Twenty-seven minutes," said Chandler, smiling ruefully. "That's all it took."

"Bloody hell," said Foster.

Mickelson's bogey on the 17th hole allowed Westwood to reclaim the 54-hole lead, at 12 under. Woods was tied for third, four strokes back, and he was lucky to be that close. Throughout the round Woods had fought his swing and struggled with his speed on the greens, leading to a few slipups in his pledge to clean up his on-course language and comportment. But in a showing of sheer stubbornness, Woods made three late birdies to claw back into the tournament.

He opened the final round with a screaming hook that settled in the 9th fairway, touching off a wildly entertaining and uneven round that included two eagles, four birdies and five bogeys. After a 69 that left him tied for fourth, ultimately five shots back, Woods instinctively fell back on the old metric that anything less than a victory is a failure. But he did allow that "I tried as hard as I possibly could to post a number and give myself a chance. I really dug deep to find something, and that's something I'm pretty proud of."

Still, his determination was no match for Mickelson's overall mastery. Phil began to take control of the tournament on the 12th hole, where he had begun his comeback for the ages in 2004. This time Mickelson's birdie served two purposes: It gave him the outright lead over a surging K.J. Choi, and it thoroughly rattled the burly Korean known as Tank. Mickelson has long been one of Augusta's favorite sons, and when his 20-footer at 12 dropped, the roar was so loud that Choi backed off his shot in the 13th fairway. He followed with his first bad swing of the day, pulling his shot into a bunker behind the green. On a hole where most in the field were making birdie if not eagle, Choi stumbled to a momentum-killing bogey, his first of the day.

Playing in the group behind, Mickelson hit his drive at 13 too straight, and the ball ran through the dogleg, settling between two pine trees. Bones pleaded for a layup short of Rae's Creek, but that has never been Mickelson's style. He ripped a six-iron through a small opening between the pines, and his ball never left the flag, stopping five feet from the hole. Asked afterward the difference between a great shot and a smart one, Mickelson woofed, "A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it."

He missed the eagle putt, but the ensuing birdie put Mickelson two up on Westwood and fast closing Anthony Kim, and a two-putt birdie at 15 pushed his advantage to three strokes, making the long walk to Amy's embrace all the sweeter.

In the wake of such a commanding performance it's impossible not to look ahead to the U.S. Open, which will be played at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson has won three Crosby Clambakes. After five wrenching near-misses at the Open, Phil will be the clear-cut favorite. In the next two months there will be plenty of talk about a potential Mickel-slam, but on Sunday evening Phil and those who love him wanted to savor this storybook Masters. Standing outside Butler Cabin, her lustrous blonde hair blowing in the twilight breeze, Amy was asked what the victory means for her embattled family. She sighed, took a deep breath and wiped away a tear. Words would not come. After another deep breath she summoned a radiant smile. "I'm going to go join my husband," Amy said, and then she floated up the stairs, into the victory party.

 

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