AUGUSTA, Ga. The beautiful thing about golf is that, in the end, it is all about what you have to give. You can't wait for a pitcher to hang a curveball. You don't look for your opponent to drop his left. You don't hope for a defender to fall for a fake left. You can't take advantage of second serves. No, it's just you and the golf course and the possibilities.
Phil Mickelson's ball rested on top of the pine straw behind a tree at the 13th hole in Sunday's final round of the Masters. He was facing his second shot, and he saw an opening. That's a gift of Mickelson's, of course: His ability to see clearings where others see traffic jams. That's also a weakness. Sometimes there really are traffic jams.
Mickelson loved his lie. His ball was resting right on top of the straw, looking pretty, like it was pleading: "Come on Phil. Go for it." Good lies can be an illusion, of course. It was a good lie that inspired Jean van de Velde to try a crazy second shot on the final hole of the 1999 British Open. He hit that ball into the stands and it bounced back into a valley of death and he lost a tournament that he had won. Golfers do believe that, with good lies, anything is possible.
Mickelson looked at his opening again. It was maybe four feet wide, plenty wide enough, if he hit it good. But could he count on hitting the ball good? This was the back nine at Augusta. He was leading the Masters by two shots. The air was getting thin. And, no matter how good the lie looked, his ball was on pine straw. And there was a giant tree in front of him and another tree not too far to the left. And there was water in front of the green. And it was 187 yards to carry over the water. And ...
Mickelson could have laid up, of course. That was the percentage play, or at least the television announcer percentage play. Television announcers love lay-ups when things are looking tricky. If Mickelson had laid up, well, the television announcers would have sung his praises, talked about how smart a decision it was, how mature a decision it was, how the right way to win the Masters is to smother those gambling instincts and make the percentage play, and it's definitely the percentage play to lay up from 209 yards out when your ball is on pine needles and there's a gigantic tree in front you.
Then again, like Fast Eddie Felson said in The Hustler: "Percentage players die broke too."
Phil Mickelson decided to go for it. He is 39 years old, fast approaching 40. He has won major championships, and he has lost major championships, and over the years he has learned to pick the moment. This was his moment. This was his time to win the Masters. This was the time to hit the shot. He had to go, right? He's Phil Mickelson. It's in his nature.
People have always talked about how many more tournaments Mickelson might have won had he just pulled back a little, played things a little safer. People point to Winged Foot in 2006. On the last hole of the U.S. Open, Mickelson needed a par to win. He hit his driver because he can't help himself, and he hit his second shot into a tree because he saw an opening, and he double bogeyed the hole and lost the U.S. Open. He confirmed the general consensus afterward when he said, "I am such an idiot."
But would he really have won more if he played it safe? Is it ever really that simple? All his life, Phil Mickelson has had this talent for making golf balls do remarkable things, for making them pop over trees and skid under branches and turn around bushes and roll up to the cup like a car pulling into a driveway. And it's not quite fair to call it "talent" like it was something he was born doing—certainly he was born with touch, but he honed his brilliance. He hit those crazy trick shots again and again until they felt a part of him. After all that work, all that practice, could Phil Mickelson really win by ignoring the openings he saw? Could he really win by smothering his talents? Could he really win more by playing it safe? Could he really win by being less like himself?
This is Mickelson. Sure, he always could play smarter. Of course, he always could pull back just a little. But the beautiful thing about golf is that, in the end, it's all about what you have to give. This is what Phil Mickelson has to give. He saw the opening, he saw the flagstick, and he had to hit the shot. He set up with 6-iron and steadied himself, then hit the shot just to the left of the tree and watched it fly right at the flag, watched it clear the creek, watched it settle three feet from the hole. And then, he listened happily to the roar that sounded like it would never quiet.
"It's really one of the few shots that only Phil could pull off," his playing partner and main foil on Sunday Lee Westwood would say.
Mickelson missed the eagle putt, which does take a little away from the success of the shot. But in the end, it wasn't the success of the shot that mattered. It was the power. Westwood was steady on Sunday ("Percentage players die broke too"), Anthony Kim blazed up the back nine, and Tiger Woods had a crazy day of brilliance and hideousness. But nobody was going to beat Phil Mickelson, not on this day, not after he hit that shot.
He dropped the birdie on 13. He made two more birdies in the last six holes. He won the Masters by three shots. And as he walked off the 18th green, he saw his wife Amy. Phil was not sure that Amy would make it to the tournament. She has been battling breast cancer, and the medicines make her feel tired and weak. She was there. They hugged for a long time. When it ended, everyone wanted Mickelson to talk about the shot at 13, a shot that will hang in the gallery of great moments at the Masters. But the truth is, he didn't really have a lot to say about it. He saw the opening. He trusted his talent. He made the shot. That's golf.
"I kept saying that if I trust my swing, I'll pull it off," is how he explained it.
Then someone asked Mickelson a great question: to explain the difference between a great shot and a smart shot. It was a great question because in many ways, Phil Mickelson's whole golfing career has rested somewhere between great and smart. "I don't know," Mickelson said. "I mean a great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it."
Yes, that answer pretty much sums up Phil Mickelson. Is it the right answer? Well, some days it is and some days it isn't. It's the right answer when the guy saying it is wearing a green jacket.