I don’t want to come off as a genius here, but I did predict this one. In a CBS promo shot way before The Masters — you’ve seen it by now — I prayed for Phil Mickelson to win a major. At the end you saw that my jammies and sheets were festooned with Phil faces. Ha ha, that’s a wrap, end of script. But I didn’t like it.
“Ye faithless Philistines,” said I. “Phil will win!” Now, others may tell you I actually said, “might maybe just possibly” instead of “will.” The point is, I made them shoot an alternate ending, thanking the golf gods for a Mickelson victory.
I almost lost faith on Sunday. It looked like the usual Sunday afternoon at The Masters: The leaders went out, and Phil started knocking nails into his own coffin with a big left-handed hammer. He wasn’t the only one on the funeral march, either. Until Ernie Els’s eagle on 8, the whole show was looking like a train wreck. And who should emerge but Mr. 0-for-46-in-the-Majors?
I can’t remember a major in which a leader faltered so badly, then regained his momentum. That takes some serious subcutaneous heart, but Phil’s demeanor was positively beatific all day. Even when he flubbed his second bunker shot of the day, at the 5th, there was no dismay. Rather, there was a centered, almost blissed-out look about the big man, and finally, when Chris DiMarco’s bunker shot trickled over his marker and came to rest about an inch behind it on the 18th green, giving Mickelson a perfect read, you just felt it was Phil’s day.
The atmosphere over the last few holes was crackling like the top of the mast above Frankenstein’s lab. Phil didn’t blink, not even when he stared at the scoreboard after Ernie’s eagle at 13. There was a roar, then a number changed on a scoreboard, and then another roar. Again and again it happened. After Phil went through the 15th hole I stayed in my tower there, riveted to the monitor. Fans all over the golf course were gathering beneath camera towers, waiting for news, wanting the roars and cheers they were hearing translated into whos and hows. Our cameramen turned their cameras around so the fans below could watch the action on tiny 6-by-4-inch black-and-white viewfinders. Augusta National had never seen anything like it. Martha Burk could have run naked down Washington Road and people would have paid her even less attention than they did last year. This was about Phil.
It was Guinness-ad brilliant, that’s how good it was. In the week of Arnold Palmer’s 50th and last Masters, it was exit one people’s champion and enter the next, landing flat on his big, awkward feet on the greatest stage in golf. Phil doesn’t hitch his pants as much as Arnie did, but his connection with fans is the same. His win was one of the biggest sports moments of the new century, maybe the biggest, and it laid to rest the notion that golf can’t generate a buzz without Tiger Woods. If Tiger is the new Jack Nicklaus, Phil’s the modern Arnie.
I always figured he was going to win a major no matter what. As well as he played in them three straight thirds at Augusta at the very least someone was bound to brain-fart the lead away and he’d be there to catch it. But nobody fainted and handed him this one. When it mattered most Phil beat Els, a great front-runner at the peak of his game, and he did it with his head and his heart. His win was golf’s best clutch performance since Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Amateur at Merion to complete the Grand Slam. Sure, there was Nicklaus at Augusta in ’86, but Jack wasn’t the “Best Player Never to Have Won a Major.”
It’s fitting that Arnold’s last major was Phil’s first win. They both play the way most people would like to, with bollocks-to-it-I’m-only-here-once abandon. This time it was all swash and no buckle for Phil. With King Kong finally off his back, he might really go deep now. Hogan was 34 when he won his first major, and he went on to win eight more. Phil turns 34 on June 16. If he wins a slew of majors, there’ll be roars of joy all over the place.
Fans may look at Tiger with awe, but they look at Phil with love. Because it’s just golf after all, and the truth of it is we all believe we can pull off that crazy shot or stare down the winning putt and knock it in. Like Phil Mickelson, we might fall short 46 times in a row, but we only need to get it right once to prove that sometimes, just when we need it most, the golf gods hear our prayers.