Tour and News

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

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Phil pulled off a shot for the ages from the trees at 13.

Phil Mickelson did not win the 74th Masters with all-world par saves on the 9th and 10th holes on Sunday or his cold-blooded birdie on the terrifying 12th, or even with the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me six-iron off the pine straw, out of the trees, over the creek and onto the 13th green. No, the key to Mickelson's third Masters victory came two days before the tournament began, when his wife, Amy, decided she was well enough to travel to Augusta. "I wanted this week to be all about Phil," Amy told SI on Sunday evening, her first public comments since being diagnosed with breast cancer last May. "I didn't want to put him in a compromising position — does he hit balls or take care of me because I'm not feeling well?"

During her battle with cancer, Amy has never been a burden to her college sweetheart, just an inspiration. But her aggressive treatments have left her too weakened to travel, and golf's most-high-profile family man has often looked lost without his wife and kids along for the adventure on the road. Mickelson was simply going through the motions at his first seven tournaments this year, finishing no better than eighth. But everything changed once Amy and the three kids touched down in Augusta. "He has a different energy, a different excitement," Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, said last Thursday. "He's playing for something bigger than himself." Mickelson made birdies by day and held court at night over lively family dinners that included his parents and in-laws. (His mother, Mary, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, is doing so well that she was able to walk hilly Augusta National for nine holes on Friday and Sunday.) With extra babysitters on hand, Mickelson even sneaked off on Friday morning to a coffee shop to play chess with daughter Sophia before his afternoon tee time. So buoyant was Mickelson when he showed up to work that his longtime caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay began referring to Augusta National as "Phil's playground." On the eve of what will go down as his greatest victory, Mickelson didn't have time to be nervous because he stayed up late on Saturday awaiting the X-ray results after elder daughter Amanda injured her wrist while roller-skating. (She suffered a hairline fracture.) "I am so proud of Phil and how he has handled it all," his dad, Phil Sr., said last week. "To be the father that he is, I couldn't be more proud."

The built-up emotion of the week — and the last 11 months — finally poured out on Sunday as the entire Mickelson tribe gathered behind the 18th green. Amy had been resting in front of a TV at a rented house, fighting back tears beginning when her hubby was on the 12th hole. She couldn't stand to miss out on the fun, so she journeyed to the course to surprise Phil, standing discreetly a few paces behind the green. Both Phil and Mackay spotted her as they approached the final green. Mackay and his wife, Jennifer, are very close to Amy, and they traveled to Houston last summer to be by her bedside before and after surgery. Yet Bones refused to make eye contact with Amy behind the green. "I really didn't want to look up, because I knew I was going to get choked up if I saw her," he said. Imagine how Phil felt. He rolled in one final birdie putt, an exclamation point on a bogeyless 67 and a four-round total of 16-under 272 that has been bettered only three times in tournament history. Then slowly he made his way to his wife. The Masters has a long history of freighted hugs, but the Mickelsons' embrace was almost cinematic in its sweetness. "I pretty much turned into a puddle," said Mackay. Nearby, Harmon — a gruff, profane man's man — was bawling like a schoolgirl. "I've never been this emotional when any of my guys have won," he said. "This was special. They're special people."

Phil has had so much practice being stoic that he was the only one who kept it together, his voice cracking only slightly during the green jacket ceremony when he said, "We've been through a lot this year. It means a lot to share some joy together."

This deeply personal triumph also had profound meaning for Mickelson's place in the game, elevating him from a mere superstar into one of golf's alltime greats. His 38th career victory pushed him to 11th on the career list, but of greater import, only the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have won more green jackets. Throw in his 2005 PGA Championship victory, and Mickelson is the only player to have won four major championships since Woods turned pro in late 1996, ending any lingering debate as to who is the era's second-best player. (Sorry, Vijay and Ernie.)

With Mickelson's feel-good victory playing out against the backdrop of Woods's very public marital woes, this Masters inevitably turned into a morality play in the pines. For Woods, the run-up to his first tournament in five months featured ritualistic, day-by-day humiliations. He arrived in Augusta just as Vanity Fair released a salacious story about his serial infidelities, complete with a photo gallery of buxom bimbos who claim to have been his paramours. On Monday, Woods endured his first Q and A with the golf press since the scandal broke, and during the 34-minute session he fielded — and sort of answered — endless questions about his mysterious late-night car crash, the state of his marriage and various other nongolf topics. On Wednesday the National Enquirer leaked details of an alleged tryst involving one of Woods's Florida neighbors.

Masters officials were none too pleased to have their august tournament sucked into the tawdry melodrama, and on Wednesday chairman Billy Payne felt obliged to officially register the club's disdain. "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here: It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids," Payne scolded during the annual chairman's press conference.

When Woods's 1:42 p.m. first-round tee time mercifully arrived, there was a funny feeling among the dogwoods. Idling by the opening tee box, the fans collectively seemed a little jittery and a tad confused. Do we cheer? Boo? Or somehow reserve judgment? Woods's short walk from the clubhouse to the practice green and then to the 1st tee added to the mixed feelings; instead of a humble return, the walk looked like a Secret Service procession as he was flanked by a dozen grim-faced goons who acted as if their job was to protect a head of state from whizzing bullets, not a mere golfer who was in danger of being hit by nothing more than a few stray wisecracks. But Woods's private army had neglected to clear the airspace above Augusta National. With a nod to Woods's born-again Buddhism, a prop plane appeared towing a banner that read TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM? This was an unheard-of breach of the Masters' meticulously artificial tranquillity. Unlike the thousands of fans around him who were pointing skyward and laughing, Woods, ever the contrarian, later claimed not to have noticed the plane, though pictures of him looking in the air suggested otherwise.

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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