Phil Mickelson breaks through with first major win at Augusta

May 30, 2012

This story first appeared in the April 19, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Late on Easter Sunday, Phil Mickelson stood over a birdie putt on the 18th hole to win the 68th Masters, and it was as quiet as church. Thousands of fans had encircled the green, glowing from sweat and the most exciting Masters finish since 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus reinvented himself in 1986. Ernie Els, the game's gentle giant, was in the clubhouse after a dazzling 67, having rushed to the lead of the tournament with two eagles in a span of six holes midway through the round. Mickelson had chased him down with a back-nine charge for the ages, and now, having endured countless heartbreaks in his decade-plus pursuit of a first major championship, Mickelson was facing the most important putt of his career, 18 feet that meant so much to so many.

Behind the green was Mickelson's wife and college sweetheart, Amy. She had been blinking back tears since the 15th hole, so overwhelming was the emotion of the day. Nearby two sets of grandparents were passing around Phil and Amy's three young children, including Evan, who had just turned a year old. In March 2003 Amy and Evan had both nearly died during childbirth. Phil was so shaken by the trauma that he sleepwalked through the 2003 season, his worst in 12 years on the PGA Tour.

In San Diego, Mickelson's 92-year-old grandmother, Jennie Santos, was resting comfortably in front of the TV. She had been getting ready to leave for Augusta when she suffered a mild stroke. Just before Christmas, Jennie's husband, Al, had died at 97. He had adorned their kitchen with the 18th-hole flags from each of their grandson's first 21 wins on Tour. Finally, in 2002, he told Phil that the only flag he would accept was one from a major championship. Shortly before his death Al whispered to Phil that this would be the year he broke through.

All of this feeling and personal history was distilled into one downhill, right-to-left putt. At last Mickelson nudged his ball toward the cup. He had been on the other end of one of these life-changing strokes, Payne Stewart's 18-footer for par on the final hole of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. At that moment Amy was in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to slow the signs of labor, as their first child, Amanda, was on the way. When the putt dropped, dealing Mickelson another in a string of devastating defeats, Stewart took Mickelson's face in his hands and told him that becoming a major champion could not compare to becoming a father. Now, five years later at Augusta National, Mickelson was on the verge of being both.

The putt crawled toward the hole. Moments earlier Mickelson had studied playing partner Chris DiMarco's unsuccessful effort from virtually the same spot. "Chris's ball was hanging on that left lip, and when it got to the hole, it just fell off," Mickelson said. "And my putt was almost on the identical line. Instead of falling off, it caught that lip and circled around and went it. I can't help but think (my grandfather) may have had a little something to do with that."

The crowd exploded, a release years in the making. Mickelson did a low-flying jumping jack and screamed, "I did it!" His longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, rushed over for a hug. Mickelson walked behind the green and scooped up his daughter Sophia. "Daddy won! Can you believe it?" he said. He wrapped Amy in a long, tearful hug. The 18th green at the Masters has seen some of golf's most memorable displays of emotion. Phil and Amy were in almost the same spot where Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, embraced after Tiger's victory in 1997. The final green is where Ben Crenshaw was doubled over in agony and ecstasy after having been guided to victory in '95 by the unseen hand of his teacher Harvey Penick, who died two days before the tournament began.

Now Mickelson had joined the pantheon of Masters winners. After 17 career top 10s in the majors, including three straight third-place finishes at Augusta, he had proved himself in the most audacious fashion imaginable. On a course that is far tougher than it was in '86, when Nicklaus shot a back-nine 30 to surge to victory, Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes to finish with a 31 on the final nine on Sunday. He became only the sixth player to win the Masters with a birdie on the 72nd hole, a list that includes Arnold Palmer, who had a birdie-birdie finish in 1960.

"Now we can finally stamp him APPROVED," said Davis Love III, a close friend of Mickelson's. "It's like a…what's the right word?… It's like a coronation."

You can't have a coronation without the King, and over the first two days Mickelson and every other competitor had to take a backseat to Palmer, who was saying goodbye to Augusta after 50 years of mythmaking. Palmer was the first player to win four green jackets, between 1958 and '64; the Masters is where his Army first marched. As he said goodbye on Friday, the pines echoed with the roars from the standing ovations he received on every hole. At 18, in a golden twilight, Palmer tapped in for a final bogey. Behind the green he kissed a pretty girl — his fiancee, Kit Gawthrop — and then he was gone.

At that moment, on the 17th hole, Mickelson was charging. Something in his strut looked familiar during a week in which so much footage of the vintage Palmer was unreeled. As Mickelson walked toward the green, where a frighteningly fast 30-footer for birdie awaited, his swing coach, Rick Smith, whispered into the ear of Amy Mickelson, "Look how fast he's going. He knows he's going to make this putt. He's dying to hit it!" Sure enough, Mickelson poured the putt into the hole, the last exclamation point on a solid 69 that vaulted him into a tie for fourth place, three shots back of Justin Rose, the young Englishman.

As a phenom back in 1991, Mickelson was saddled with the tag of the Next Nicklaus, but he has always had a lot more in common with Palmer. Both have made an intensely personal connection with fans, thanks to an agreeable, approachable manner and a go-for-broke style. They have also been defined as much by their shattering defeats as by their many triumphs. Until last week Mickelson had been 0 for 46 in the majors, in large part because of the real Next Nicklaus: Tiger Woods turned out to be the Bear apparent. With Woods almost clinically winning seven of 11 majors from 1999 to 2002, the deficiencies in Mickelson's game were thrown into sharp relief. He was one-dimensional in his ball striking, employing almost exclusively a hard draw that could turn into a runaway hook. Mickelson loved to bomb it off the tee, accuracy be damned, and he was inclined to fire at every flag, regardless of the consequences. That style worked wonderfully at the Bob Hope Classic but was fatal at the Grand Slam events, where tougher courses with exacting setups extract severe penalties for mistakes. Yet Mickelson defiantly refused to change his approach.

A brutal 2003 compelled him to do some soul-searching. He had failed to win all year for only the second time in his career and plummeted to 15th in the World Ranking. He had slipped to 189th in driving accuracy. At year's end Mickelson took a hard look in the mirror. While the buffed Woods increasingly resembles an NFL safety, Mickelson had the body of a couch potato. Not anymore. Since December he has lost 15 pounds by going bunless at In-N-Out Burger and laying off his beloved doughnuts, as well as by working out six times a week with Sean Cochran, a former strength and conditioning coach for the San Diego Padres who accompanies him to every tournament on Mickelson's Gulfstream.

More important, Mickelson reshaped his swing. Around Christmas, Smith spent five 10-hour days working to quiet Mickelson's lower body and shorten his backswing when hitting his irons, leading to more balance and consistency. They also perfected a reliable fade, sacrificing a few yards for greater control. Mickelson looked like a different player while winning his season debut at the Hope, even (gasp) laying up on a watery par-5 down the stretch. (That he went on to three-putt for bogey was an irony even Mickelson could appreciate.)

Augusta National, though, loomed as the ultimate test. In the previous three Masters, Mickelson had made 60 birdies, while the respective champions combined for 58, but to win he would have to make fewer big numbers. Last week the course's dangerous par-5s were the battlefield where the war played out between the old and new Phil. When, instead of boldly firing at the flag on 13 on Thursday, he conservatively aimed 35 feet left, it was clear that Mickelson was playing a different game than in years past. And when you don't tempt the golf gods, you are rewarded. At 13 on Friday, Mickelson pulled his approach, and it rolled off the green toward Rae's Creek before stopping inches above the hazard, the most momentous Velcro job since Fred Couples's ball stayed up on 12 in 1992. Mickelson turned a would-be 6 into a 4, the key break of the tournament.

For this Masters, Mickelson throttled back in another way, abandoning his trademark flop shot on Augusta National's tight lies and using his putter from off the greens. This wasn't glamorous, but it got the job done. At the 18th on Saturday he got up and down from behind the green with a deft putt off a mound, preserving a bogeyless 69 that gave him his first 54-hole lead in a major.

Over the first three rounds Mickelson played the most controlled, disciplined golf of his career, hitting 73-6% of his fairways and leading the tournament in greens in regulation. Still, Sunday would be his most important round ever. That Woods, his nemesis, was in 20th place, at three over par, surely helped. "Well, it doesn't suck," Mickelson said, breaking up a loosey-goosey press conference.

However relaxed Mickelson seemed, you just knew he wouldn't make it easy on Sunday. Early on he came down with a case of the yips (missing a 3 1/2-footer for par on 3) and then the fluffs (leaving a sand shot in a bunker on 5 for another bogey). Mickelson was three down to a charging Els when he reached the heart of Amen Corner.

Mickelson might have played Nicklaus's brand of percentage golf to get this far, but now it was time to get after it like Arnie. On the par-3 12th, the scariest little hole in golf, Mickelson attacked the flag, sticking an eight-iron to 12 feet for the birdie that began his comeback. At 13 he ripped a high fade around the corner and then rifled a seven-iron to 20 feet, setting up a two-putt birdie. He was one back, but only for a moment, as Els played a superb chip at the par-5 15th, capping a run in which he went six under in a nine-hole stretch.

After a perfect drive at 14 Mickelson and Mackay stood in the fairway chewing on club selection. Bones is the only caddie Mickelson has ever had. He is part of what Amy calls "our gang." She says, "We joke that Phil is the only player in golf history to have the same wife, caddie, agent and nanny his whole career." Standing 146 yards from the hole, Bones talked Mickelson out of a nine-iron and persuaded him to hit a hard pitching wedge. It stopped two inches from the cup for a gimme birdie. One down. "That was a very good idea," Mickelson said of the club Bones had pulled.

Mickelson was still one down when he arrived at the par-3 16th. The hole cost him dearly in 2001, when his hooked seven-iron put him above the hole, resulting in a three-putt that killed his chances. This time Mickelson trusted his high fade and fed an eight-iron off the slope to 15 feet "That one swing says more about Phil's development than any other," said Smith. When Mickelson buried the putt, he was even with Els, setting up the drama of the 72nd hole.

Long after the winning putt had dropped, there was a sense of disbelief that Mickelson had really done it. Wearing his new 43-long jacket, he said, "It was an amazing, amazing day, the fulfillment of all my dreams." Amy still couldn't stop dabbing her eyes, while Amanda was telling any adult within earshot, "Green is my new favorite color."

With Woods fighting his swing and on the verge of domesticity, for Mickelson this Masters should be not the culmination of a career but the beginning of a wondrous second act. One of the game's greatest, Ben Hogan, didn't win his first major until he was 34. By the time he was 41, he had eight more. Mickelson is only 33. For years golf fans have been waiting for someone to play Palmer to Woods's Nicklaus. Now Mickelson has arrived. The King is gone. Long live the new king.