As traditions go, it was a relatively new one, but it was fun while it lasted.
The Masters Sunday witching hour would arrive somewhere between 7:15pm and 7:30pm. Jim Nantz would hustle down to Butler Cabin, along with Hootie Johnson or Billy Payne. A few minutes later, with mousse in his hair and his white teeth glistening and that I-aced-the-SATs smile, in would walk Lefty, all set for the Green Jacket ceremony. Phil Mickelson won his first club coat in 2004 and returned in '05 to slip it on Tiger. In '06, when Phil won it again, Tiger returned the favor. Last year Mickelson helped Zach Johnson into his jacket. But this year the show went on without Phil Mickelson.
It made you miss him.
Tiger was paired with a buddy on Sunday this year, playing with Stewart Cink, a collegiate opponent in the mid-1990s, a fellow Nike player today. That twosome was in the third-to-last group. Tiger doesn't need to play with a pal to get into a comfort zone. If anything, he plays better when he's paired with someone who gets under his skin a little, like Rory Sabbatini or Stephen Ames. Mickelson's not like that. When he won in '06 he played the last round with Fred Couples-everyone likes playing with Fred Couples-and in post-victory comments he talked about how lucky he was to draw him as a partner.
On Sunday, he was less fortunate, setting off with Vijay Singh, another two-time Masters winner, as his partner. There's no love lost between those two. Singh has accused Mickelson of being heavy-footed around the hole, leaving spike marks that others have to putt through. When Singh once said, "I'm not like a lot of these other guys, not a phony," it was clear to others that he was referring to Phil. You might be tempted to say the Sunday pairing was unlucky for Singh, too, but that wouldn't be the case. He can play with anybody, anywhere, at any time.
In any event, both men were searching for a Sunday miracle: Mickelson was nine shots behind Trevor Immelman through 54 holes and Singh was 10 shots back. Still, it was in the realm of the doable. Well, not really, but you have to be a little bit of a dreamer to play professional golf, and part of Phil's appeal is that he lets us see his dreams, along with his nightmare blow-ups. He's on display.
On Sunday he shot an even par 72 to finish the tournament at 2-under-par, in a tie for fifth place, six shots out of the lead. Singh closed with a 74 to shoot 1-over for the tournament. When their day together was done, they exchanged perfunctory handshakes. It was all very businesslike.
Mickelson, wisely, talked about his golf, not his playing partner. Of his 72 he said, "I think it would have been a good round let's say on Thursday or Friday but when you're this far back you've got to shoot something in the 60s, probably the mid-60s." Lefty's always good with the numbers: with a 65, three shots better than the day's best round, he would have won the tournament.
He'll get better before he gets worse. He has to, right? He's as optimistic as anybody in golf. He said, "It's encouraging that, playing in the majors, I'm probably striking the ball better than I ever have." Come May he defends his title at the Players Championship. A month after that he goes home to Torrey Pines, his personal playground, for the U.S. Open. He's not going to win the Grand Slam this year, but his year's not over yet.