Close calls now sign of quality

Updated: April 12, 2004, 4:20 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So this is what it was all about. This is why Phil Mickelson had all those near misses. That 0-for-42 record in the major championships as a professional was apparently all part of some grand cosmic plan to make eventual victory taste all that much sweeter.

And now, just like that, a career that once seemed littered with squandered opportunities boasts a resume cluttered with a remarkable record of achievement. Those 17 other top-10 finishes in major championships before Sunday's Masters victory now speak not of failure but of a remarkable run of consistent great play that time and again put Mickelson in a position to win the tournaments that matter most. This feels very much like the door has been kicked open and that this was not so much Mickelson's first major as it was the first of many.

Time and again at Augusta National Golf Club, as Mickelson reached for a 3-wood instead of driver off the tee, time and again as he played a controlled fade rather than a power hook, time and again as he abandoned his look-at-what-I-can-do flop shot for the safer play of the putter from near the green, Mickelson displayed the course management skills that translate to major titles. This is exactly the way Phil once told us he would never play because it was just a lot more fun to gamble. What Mickelson found out Sunday was that the passing pleasure of pulling off a high-risk shot is nothing compared to the permanent joy of winning one of the Big Four events.

And as much as Mickelson proved to be every measure of a major champion by closing with a 31 on the back nine to chase down Ernie Els -- making five birdies in the last seven holes -- he just as clearly demonstrated that this is an experience he wants to re-live over and over again. Soon after the award ceremony, Mickelson plopped into a chair, a wide grin covering his face and the green jacket of a Masters champion covering a broad back that never buckled in the tense final-round duel with Els. He pointed first to his smile and then to the jacket and said, "This and this are not going anywhere."

For Mickelson, it always seemed as if the joy was in the pursuit not in the prize. But it is the folly of youth to mistake seduction for love and Mickelson, a little more than two months shy of his 34th birthday and with three children, suddenly seems all grown up. There was never any doubting his skills or his intelligence, just a few questions about his ability to employ them. And while it will take more than one major championship to secure Mickelson a place in golf history among the greats of the game, there is good reason to believe that he turned an important corner with plenty of time left to travel the road to greatness.

There was an interesting irony to the fact that Mickelson won this Masters in part because he abandoned the sexy distance of his power hook for the less appealing controlled fade. That's exactly the change Ben Hogan made in his game that preceded his emergence as a great player. The irony is compounded by this fact: Hogan never won a major championship until he was 34 years old. And when he got that breakthrough victory at the 1946 PGA Championship, Hogan went on a tear in which he won nine of the next 16 majors in which he played. Mickelson may not dominate like that -- no one, not even Tiger Woods, has -- but you sure have to like his chances the next time he is in contention on Sunday in a major.

There is another compelling irony about Mickelson's victory at Augusta National. His final round was a virtual mirror of his career. He birdied the second hole then bogeyed three of the next four. And just when it seemed like it would be same old Phil, he fired an 8-iron at the pin on the dangerous 12th hole to trigger his closing burst of birdies that ended with a 20-footer on the final hole to win the green jacket. Nothing is ever easy with Mickelson. It's like those Ford television commercials say: "What will Phil do next?" I'm betting he'll win more majors.

Phil Mickelson's father, Phil Sr., was a pilot. And there is an irony in that also. Ultimately, this was a journey by young Phil from a fresh-faced 20-year-old "can't miss next Nicklaus" to a first major more than a decade later that was not flown at 38,000 feet but rather was taken on the ground, on back roads through scenic and sometimes dangerous neighborhoods. While there were times when it seemed like life came easy to Mickelson -- he is handsome, smart and talented -- professional success at the level that was expected of him exacted a painful price from him. He was always Phil the Underachiever. Until Sunday at the Masters.

When Mickelson left the award ceremony and walked toward the media center he was carried along by a wave of applause and shouts of his name. Only Tiger Woods in 1997 and Jack Nicklaus in 1986 rivaled Mickelson among recent winners in the emotional outpouring from the fans. He was a popular champion precisely because it took so long for him to win that green jacket. "To have it be such a difficult journey made it all the sweeter," Mickelson said. "Now I get to be a part of this [the Masters] for the rest of my life." It was a special day for Mickelson, and there should be more ahead.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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