Phil Mickelson's march to his third green jacket began on the 13th hole of the third round. He was sputtering along and in danger of losing sight of Lee Westwood, the 36-hole leader, who had birdied four of his first 10 holes on Saturday. Mickelson took an aggressive line off the tee on the bending par-5, leaving him 195 yards to a treacherous back-left pin. The safe play was to the middle of the green, leaving a long putt, but that's not Phil. He smashed a seven-iron dead at the flag. "I took a chance," Mickelson says. "If I don't pull off that shot and miss it left, it's unlikely I'm going to get that up and down, so it's a two-shot swing." With risk comes reward: He stuck the shot to 10 feet and made eagle.
"The biggest reason he won the tournament is how aggressively he played," says Jim (Bones) Mackay, Mickelson's longtime caddie. "You could certainly make the argument that a couple of times over the years, things haven't worked out for him when he's played aggressively, but he would not have won this tournament had he not done some of the things he did. You can't get to that pin on 13. It's the toughest pin on the green. But he attacked it and hit a great shot, and that got him on a roll to winning this tournament."
On the next hole Mickelson bombed a drive and had 141 yards left to a pin situated in a bowl. Mickelson knew a good shot would funnel toward the flag. "It's the easiest pin on the hole," he says. "You expect to make birdie there, and I hit a good shot and thought that the ball would be close. But you obviously don't expect for it to go in."
Says Mackay, "The roar when Phil made the putt on the final hole in 2004 is the loudest I've ever heard it [at the Masters], but this was pretty close, which is amazing when you think about it because not many people hang out behind the 14th green.
"Phil had a little stop-and-smell-the-roses moment coming up 14. He was like, This is so cool." But he wasn't done.
Mickelson was lusting after a third straight eagle as he stepped to the tee of the short but dangerous par-5 15th. "I thought it was possible that somebody had made two eagles in a row" in fact, Gary Player and Dan Pohl are the only other players to have done so in the 74-year history of the Masters "but I didn't think anybody had three, and I was trying to go for that."
But he pushed his drive and was blocked by trees, forcing a layup. From 87 yards Mickelson played a low, spinning shot that was on line the whole way. "He caught it perfect," says Mackay. "It took that big first bounce right at the flag, but with a 64-degree wedge you know the ball is going to grab hard. From our perspective it looked as if it was in the ball must have passed behind the flag because it disappeared for a split second. It's crazy to say, but it was almost a little disappointing that it didn't go in."
Eagle, eagle, birdie, and just like that, Mickelson was leading the tournament. The crowd was going bonkers. "I was well aware that somebody was making a charge, and I figured it was Phil," says Westwood.
During the final round both Mickelson and Westwood cautiously navigated the exacting front nine. Phil made his first birdie at the 8th but followed with loose tee shots on the next two holes. He salvaged par out of the forest each time. "Massive," says Mackay. "Those par saves were almost more important than if they had been birdies, because it felt as if things were falling into place for us."
Mickelson hit a gorgeous nine-iron over the flag at 12 and rolled in his first long putt of the day for a birdie that put him one up on K.J. Choi. At 13 Mickelson didn't cut his tee shot enough, and the ball rolled through the fairway into a precarious position between two pines. His ball came to rest in a pretty good lie atop the pine straw, 207 yards from the flag, 187 yards to carry Rae's Creek. Mackay gently suggested a safe punch-out short of the creek by saying, "Hey, that was such a great pitch shot you hit back on number 8."
"I'm not laying up," Mickelson shot back. He had found an opening between the trees and felt confident that he could squeeze his ball through. "Then we found out Choi made 6 [up ahead at 13], so I tried again," Mackay recalls. Mickelson was unmoved, and Bones later recounted his boss's reasoning: "There's an opening in the trees. It's not as if I have to play a big slice or a big hook; it's only a six-iron. All I have to do is execute."
As it became clear that Mickelson was going to give it a go, a palpable current of electricity ran through the gallery. Among the masses was Phil's swing coach, Butch Harmon. What was he thinking? "You can't print it," says Harmon. In Mickelson's mind the shot did not carry a high degree of difficulty. "Well, I had to hit a shot between those two trees, whether I laid up or went for the green, and I decided to hit it 90 yards farther than a layup," he says.
"I felt as if a good six-iron was going to be plenty. It was a shot where I kept saying, If I simply trust my swing, I'll pull it off. And I made a good swing; it went right at the pin." His ball stopped five feet from the flag and will forever symbolize Mickelson's courage and creativity.
Says Mackay, "That's Phil he simplifies things. 'Give me the club, and get out of the way.' "
Mickelson missed the eagle putt but regrouped to bury a tough comebacker, pushing his lead to two strokes. He put the tournament away with another birdie on 15, the watery, do-or-die hole at which many Masters have been lost. "I hit a good drive there," he says. "It was playing 196 with the downhill factored in. Normally that's a stock seven-iron, but I had adrenaline going a little bit, and I ripped an eight-iron and ended up 15 feet from the hole just to the right and trickled that thing down and two-putted."
That's how spectacular Mickelson's Masters was: He made this ridiculously important moment seem routine. Ho hum, another birdie, another green jacket.