Master Craftsman: Mickelson captures second green jacket

May 30, 2012

This article first appeared in the April 17, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated.

First there was the Old Phil—remember him? For a decade he played a thrilling brand of low-percentage golf, blitzing the fields at Phoenix Opens and Bob Hope Classics but always beating himself when the stakes were the highest. The New Phil emerged in 2004 with a throttled-back game built for the majors, and though it brought him two breakthrough victories they were still high-wire acts, as he had to birdie the last hole to prevail at both the 2004 Masters and the 2005 PGA Championship. Last week, at the 70th Masters, came the unveiling of the New New Phil—a potent mix of overpowering golf, increased discipline and hard-earned experience. The latest version of Mickelson doesn't just win majors, he dominates them. He not only beats the competition but also demoralizes his fellow pros.

Mickelson went into the final round of this Masters with a one-stroke lead, and as he played the 7th hole on Sunday he was in a five-way tie for first and 15 players were within three strokes of the lead, including three of his four primary rivals: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. (Ernie Els had been only four back at the start of the day but suffered another Sunday meltdown.) What had the makings of a classic back-nine shootout instead turned into a suspense-free coronation. Mickelson made textbook birdies at the 7th and 8th holes to regain the outright lead and then produced the kind of methodical, indomitable, airtight golf that has been the hallmark of Woods's biggest victories. Mickelson simply refused to make a bogey while patiently allowing everyone else to beat themselves. By the time Mickelson reached the 16th hole he was four strokes ahead and cruising. "This is the best round I've ever seen him play," Rick Smith, Mickelson's longtime swing coach, said from behind the 16th green. "He has incredible control out there." Only a meaningless bogey on the 18th hole prevented Mickelson from becoming the fifth Masters champion to play the final round without a blemish.

Now halfway to the Mickelslam, having won the last two majors and three of the past nine, he is beginning to transcend comparisons with his contemporaries and stir the ghosts of the game's alltime greats. It's a mind-bending change from the lost years during which Mickelson was measured not against other golfers but against Dan Marino and Charles Barkley and other megatalents who never won the big one. Now it's time to reach for the Ben Hogan parallels. Hogan didn't win his first major until he was 34; by the time he was 41 he had eight more. Any chance that the 35-year-old Mickelson will get complacent after his latest triumph? "Tomorrow we'll start preparing for Winged Foot," he said on Sunday night, a nod to the site of the U.S. Open in June.

It was Mickelson's preparation for this Masters that proved decisive. Following the 2005 tournament, Augusta National underwent its latest round of retrofitting, being stretched to 7,445 yards in its continuing evolution from a wide-open shotmaker's delight to a longer, tighter, more penal test that demands as much precision as power. Mickelson had ended his 0-for-42 drought in the majors at the 2004 Masters by employing little more than a controlled fade off the tee, but with Augusta National now 155 yards longer Mickelson felt he needed more pop this year. In a practice round on the Masters course 10 days before the start of the tournament, the player whom his colleagues sardonically call Genius decided to go with two drivers. He used his regular big stick on dogleg lefts, such as the 5th and 13th holes, where he is so comfortable hitting soft fades. When he wanted to really bust one, he used a driver that is heel-weighted with a longer shaft, which promotes a hot draw that gives him an extra 25 yards without sacrificing control. Smith immediately dubbed Mickelson's new weapon "the bomb driver," and to test it in tournament conditions Phil used it at the BellSouth Classic, played the week before the Masters. At the BellSouth all he did was finish 28 under par to win by 13 strokes in the most dominant performance of his career, averaging 309.1 yards per drive and hitting 80.4% of fairways along the way. (He had been averaging 297.2 yards and 57.5% coming in.) For the first time in recent memory Woods was not the clear-cut Masters favorite.

The intrigue surrounding Mickelson's twin drivers stoked the larger story of how the revamped Augusta National would play. The soundtrack to the early part of Masters week was the whining of the players, who were given the outrageous task of having to hit accurate drives and sometimes use a long iron on approach shots, the latter being a lost art in the driver-wedge game that is transforming the PGA Tour into a Home Run Derby in pleated pants. But to the seeming disappointment of many players and most of the press, Hootie Johnson—the Augusta chairman whose fetish for combating increased driving distance has led to all the course changes—was exonerated over the first two rounds. The firm and fast conditions suited a wide variety of players, and on a windless Thursday there were plenty of highlights. The 12 eagles were one shy of the first-round record, and Singh shot a bogeyless 67 to take a one-stroke lead. One of 18 players in the field of 90 to break par on the first day, Mickelson hit eight of 14 fairways and birdied three of the four par-5s en route to a two-under 70.

During the second round a swirling breeze gave Augusta National more teeth, and only three players broke 70, led by Chad Campbell's 67, which propelled him to a three-stroke lead over Singh (three double bogeys en route to a 74), Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate. Mickelson was four back after a 72, during which he hit nine fairways and birdied all the par-5s.

Mickelson ground it out over the first two rounds without his biggest fan, his wife, Amy. She had been by his side during the early part of Masters week, but on Wednesday she flew from Augusta to San Diego to watch eldest daughter Amanda's school play the next day. Dressed as a rainbow, Amanda, 6, had only one line. "But it was a compelling line," Amy would say later, noting that Amanda had to explain the properties of a rainbow. Phil was so bummed to have to miss the performance that he tried to persuade a friend to set up a live Web feed, but it didn't pan out. Amy and Amanda jetted back to Augusta on Friday, with Mom arriving just in time to make a 6 p.m. cocktail party.

On Saturday, Amy didn't get to see her hubby strike his first shot until supper time. At 1:02 p.m., with the final nine twosomes yet to tee off, rain and lightning forced a delay of four hours and 18 minutes. Mickelson squeezed in five holes before darkness halted the round. He didn't make a par, following three straight birdies with two bogeys. That left him tied for fourth, three back of Campbell.

Also lurking in fourth was Woods, who had putted indifferently during opening rounds of 72-71, but over nine holes on Saturday had six one-putts while going out in two-under 34. That he would begin the Sunday-morning restart on the 10th hole was an identical scenario to last year's Masters, in which third-round play also had been pushed into Sunday because of weather delays. Woods quickly grabbed the lead from Chris DiMarco with birdies on the first four holes of the back nine. When Woods birdied the 10th on Sunday morning, it looked like 2005 all over again. But he promptly dumped his approach into the pond on 11, three-putted the 14th, found the water again on 15 and then three-putted again at 16, marking the first time he had made three consecutive bogeys at the Masters in 10 appearances as a pro. Mickelson played the remaining 13 holes of his third round in one under, taking the lead at four under—two ahead of Woods and Singh, one up on Couples and Campbell.

During his 3 1/2-hour break between rounds Mickelson said, "It's going to be an 18-hole shootout." Stunningly, however, Woods came out firing blanks, three-putting three times during the final round and repeatedly missing chances inside 10 feet. Following a closing 70 that left him three back of Mickelson, Woods said his ball striking was "the best I've hit it in years." But, he added, "as great as I hit the ball, that's how poorly I putted. I absolutely lost it on the greens."

The other contenders also sputtered. While Mickelson was playing the 10th hole, Jose Maria Olazabal eagled 15 to go to seven under for the round and move within one stroke of the lead, but he promptly three-putted the 16th hole to end his bid. Singh was in the middle of the fairway on both back-nine par-5s, then made messy pars, ultimately falling four strokes short. Mediate was tied for the lead when he made the turn, but fighting a bad back he rinsed three balls at the par-3 12th and made a 10. Campbell briefly tied for the lead with a birdie at the 7th, but he three-putted the 11th and played the back-nine par-5s in one over. Couples, the 46-year-old warrior playing in the final twosome with Mickelson, hung around the longest. Unfortunately for him, the purity of his swing is matched only by the shakiness of his putting stroke. In the final round Couples missed three putts inside six feet in the first 11 holes, and with the chance to cut the lead to one stroke, he three-jacked the 14th from four feet for bogey. That gave Mickelson a three-shot cushion, and he sailed home from there.

After saving par from a greenside bunker on 10, Mickelson played nearly perfect golf the rest of the way, set up by rockets off the tee. He birdied the par-5 13th and 15th by attacking the greens with a four- and five-iron, respectively. "The back nine I drove it as good as I probably ever have," Mickelson said. Three up playing the final hole, Mickelson was propelled up the hill by a deafening ovation. It was a reminder that around Augusta, as elsewhere, Woods is respected but Mickelson is beloved. After Phil had tidied up his 29th career victory, there were no low-flying jumping jacks or cathartic tears, as in 2004, just lots of hugs and kisses for Amy and Amanda and Sophia, 4, and Evan, 3.

Mickelson tore himself from his family's embrace just long enough for the green jacket ceremony on the practice putting green. The sunset was throwing off gorgeous light as the defending champ, Woods, placed the jacket on Mickelson, only strengthening their linked fortunes. Last year they made a combined $113 million on and off the course, and now each plays only for history. Since the start of 2004 Mickelson is leading three to two in the only tally that matters, major championship victories. (In that same span Singh and Goosen have one apiece and Els has been skunked.) The only thing Tiger hates more than losing is losing to Phil. "He played great," Woods said of his primary rival. "He peaked at the right time. That's what you try to do, peak four times a year."

Taking the microphone to address the throng, Mickelson called Sunday "a day that is going to be one of the most memorable of my life, after the birth of my kids and my wedding." Even in his finest hour he took the time to nod at Woods and ask the crowd to say a prayer for Tiger's gravely ill father, Earl. "We all know how important parents are in life," Mickelson said.

This was the second straight night that Mickelson had been aglow in the Augusta twilight. On Saturday evening he was in the middle of the 3rd fairway when the sun finally popped out at 7:20 p.m. The last of the dark clouds were receding beyond the Augusta National clubhouse, but when the light hit them, a sliver of a rainbow appeared. It was a reminder of the things that a loving dad occasionally misses in the course of making history. Mickelson may have had to skip his daughter's school play, but a second Masters victory was a pretty sweet consolation prize.