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Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Updated: April 16, 1:04 PM ET
Three is the magic number

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Two left-handers won at the 2003 Marthas ... I mean Masters.

Mike Weir won the 2003 title, a million dollars plus cab fare, continental respect and adulation in his native Canada.

Phil Mickelson won nearly everything else.

Phil Mickelson
Don't look so perplexed, Phil: you came out a winner in our book.

With all the talk about Tiger going for three wins in a row, turned out it was Phil Mickelson who three-peated. No one has ever finished third at Augusta three years in a row, have they? No, they haven't, not that I know of, because nobody even pulled out a record book to check on Phil's behalf.

It's just Phil again. It's just third place three years in a row.

Phil should get at least a green V-neck pullover sweater. When people did notice what he had accomplished, it was almost like they were embarrassed, like he should be nearly ashamed, duck and skulk off. Tiger and Ernie Els and Darren Clark and Len Mattiace, for all the expectations, 79s, cigars, and tears, at least got crystal vases out of it, for low rounds of the day. Rich Beem and a few others who finished behind Lefty got crystal goblets for making eagles. So what did Not So Lean Gene the Birdie Machine get? Well, he got asked, basically, "What's wrong with you, Lefty? Disappointed, Lefty?" This was after Phil shot 68 on Sunday.

He wasn't buying it. He knew, even if we didn't. "I felt it was (a) successful day ... can't just look at it as winning and losing ..." Lefty didn't look at it as losing, anyway, you could see that; he looked at it as 68 on Sunday at The Masters, and he'd take it. He said finishing at 5-under was the number he thought would do it, and that you can't look at success as whether or not you win or lose against the other guys sometimes because you can't control what they do. In other words, if Len Mattiace shoots a 65 on Sunday, that's an act of God, and if you don't believe it, look at Len Mattiace over there crying about it. His wife said the last time he cried, their children had been born. Sometimes, you ain't beating that. Overall, it was a nice philosophical bent by Phil, almost John Woodenesque.

If Big Lefty had been 3-under starting the day, like Little Lefty -- Mike Weir -- was, then Phil Mickelson finally wins the Masters. Unless you think Phil's bogeying 10 in a playoff.

That's not fair, and what might be called the Fallacy of the Predestined Bogey. Mike Weir seems like a tough nut out there. He wanted to win. He didn't just want to play. He had an obsession, like the Ben Cross character, sprinter Harold Abrahams, in "Chariots of Fire." He was on a mission, driven. Little Lefty would've made that par putt on 10 in the playoff if Big Lefty had been there making par.

He also won something else. The joy of it. And he shared that. Rarely, if ever, have I seen an athlete or any performing artist as ecstatic as Lefty looked after he holed an 80-foot snake on number 2 on Sunday.

I have a few people I call if I need intuition about golf, and one of my people picked Mike Weir on Sunday morning, saying he was a pit bull and once his jaws locked on you'd have to beat him off with a 2-iron. Phil was still the most compelling talent other than Tiger. I give Phil a hard time, but it's not like he's set upon on all sides or anything; in fact, if anything, he's almost too comfortable. He needs something to drive him. He continues to interest as a subject, is in some odd way compelling. It's only fun to caricature him because The Big Subcutaneous has so much mystifying talent, and so much game, plenty game enough to withstand a few loose swings at him from this end. He's teasing us enough. The least we can do is tease him back.

But I still say Phil won at The Masters, too.

He won $408,000 for finishing three-peating third, sure.

He also won something else. The joy of it. And he shared that. Rarely, if ever, have I seen an athlete or any performing artist as ecstatic as Lefty looked after he holed an 80-foot snake on number 2 on Sunday. Did you see the look on his face? He took off his visor, widened and closed his eyes, said "Wooo!", swayed like a deacon at a sanctified church. An unbridled rapture briefly took him over. Did you seethat? Big Lefty looked a little like Ian Charleson portraying 400-meter runner Eric Liddell in open-mouthed rapture while running his face in "Chariots of Fire."

You could call the 2003 Masters "Chariots of Martha."

Well, maybe not.

I did find myself envying Phil Mickelson that look of sheer joy and rapture on number 2, maybe the way a lot of guys on the Tour probably envy Lefty's talent, if not his taste. In baseball, I'd often hear or have another player say to me, "If I had all that talent like Darryl Strawberry, why I'd ..."

Sure you would. If you had all that talent, then you'd be Darryl Strawberry, or Phil Mickelson, and not you.

So I find myself coming back to write or make comment on Phil Mickelson, because he keeps doing interesting things. I would like to see him win not one but three majors, just to give me more to kiss off. Ernie Els already has won three majors and may win a couple or three more. Vijay has won a couple. Little Lefty, Mike Weir, is going to win his two or three or maybe more majors. Weir is beginning to look a little like the Golffather, Gary Player, another good, small athlete in black from another country. When Tiger wins his 20 majors, maybe there won't remain any of the talk that Tiger Woods wasn't playing against as good a brand of competition as Jack Nicklaus did in his prime.

Not So Lean Gene the Birdie Machine, No No La Left, whatever you want to call Phil Mickelson, he won something at Augusta last Sunday. But he's so touched by his own genius, or just "tetched," nobody even noticed.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."