Commentary

Mickelson's victory classic Phil

Originally Published: April 11, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The man he still calls "coach" was doing his best not to jump out of his chair and scream at the television.

Steve Loy, Phil Mickelson's long-time agent, tried to remain calm. After all, a bit of decorum is required inside the Augusta National clubhouse. But how do you hold it in?

The player he recruited as a teenager to play golf at Arizona State, then later went to work for, was involved in a riveting back nine Sunday, a major championship at stake.

And then, like the rest of the world, Loy could not believe his eyes. There was Mickelson in the pine straw on Augusta's par-5 13th hole, thinking about firing a shot through an opening in the trees.

As caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay tried to talk Lefty out of it, Loy gulped. There was nothing left to do but watch and hope as Mickelson rifled his 6-iron, nearly catching one tree with his follow through, and the ball landed on the green and came to rest 3 feet from the cup.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaAfter winning his third Masters and fourth major championship overall on Sunday at Augusta National, Phil Mickelson stopped by for a hug with wife Amy, who's been undergoing breast cancer treatment.

Fans surrounding the green went crazy, Mickelson pumped his fist and Loy could only sit back in his chair in disbelief.

"This hair used to be blond, not gray," Loy quipped as he held his hand over his heart, shaking his head.

It was the shot of the tournament, of the year, and maybe of Mickelson's career.

And doesn't that define Phil the Thrill?

He won his third Masters, this one by 3 strokes over Lee Westwood, shooting a 5-under-par 67 with a series of great par saves and clutch shots.

But none was better than the 207-yard 6-iron that set up a birdie -- and should have been an eagle -- at the 13th.

Nobody would have blamed him had he laid up to a manageable yardage and tried to make a birdie with a phenomenal short game. We can all think of a few instances in which such a play didn't work out. But this time it did, and there were grins all around.

"You can't print it," laughed Butch Harmon, Mickelson's coach, when asked what he was thinking as the decision unfolded. "I was praying he would lay up. I'm sure Bones was doing the same thing.

"But he made a great explanation. He had to go through the same gap to go for the green as he did to lay up. So why not go for the green? With all the birdies they were making in front of him, he figured he needed to make birdie. You know how confident he is on those kind of shots."

Had Mickelson converted the eagle putt, the shot to set it up would have gone down as one of the greatest of all time.

Somehow, Mickelson missed the hole with the 3-footer, giving himself a longer birdie putt coming back. He made it, a crucial development as he kept a 2-shot advantage over Westwood that he never relinquished.

"It's one of the few shots, really, that only Phil could pull off," said Westwood, who was also playing his second shot from the trees. "I think most people would have just chipped that one out. That's what great players do ... pull off great shots at the right time."

Asked for a better shot he's seen, Westwood was stumped.

"Not around here," he said. "It was something special."

And it helped seal an emotional victory that had tears flowing from the 18th green all the way down to Rae's Creek. Mackay, for one, basically lost it when he saw Mickelson's cancer-stricken wife, Amy, emerge just from behind the green, the first time she has attended a tournament since last year's Players Championship just weeks before the Mickelsons announced her diagnosis.

Somewhere in the crowd were Mickelson's and Amy's parents, their three children and of course an adoring audience that cheered golf's feel-good story of the year.

"I was a bit of a mess there at the end," Mackay said. "It was an incredible week, obviously. I have to think down the road, at least for me, it will mean way more than any other victory he's had."

Mackay has been there since the beginning, since before Mickelson turned pro in 1992. He has been on the bag for all 38 PGA Tour victories, all four major championships. And he knows the reputation Mickelson has acquired, one of a player who gambled too much on the golf course for his own good.

"The biggest reason he won this golf tournament was because of how aggressive he played," Mackay said. "He played incredibly aggressive all week. You can make the argument that over the years a couple of things haven't worked out for him when he played aggressive, but he would not have won this tournament if he had not done some of the things he did."

The 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot is a good starting point for the second guessing. Mickelson was on the verge of winning his third straight major title when he stepped to the 18th green with a 1-stroke lead and peeled a poor drive off into the left rough.

He was universally assailed for his decision to hit driver, but the second-shot decision to go for the green was far worse. Mickelson thought he could cut a shot around a big tree and get it up on the green. He could have laid up and tried to win by getting up and down for par -- at the very least been in a playoff -- but he went for it and paid the ultimate price. The ball found a tree and the result was a double-bogey and a crushing 1-shot defeat to Geoff Ogilvy.

Mickelson's famous quote afterward: "I am such an idiot."

Aside from last year's U.S. Open, where Mickelson tied for second, he had not given himself many chances in majors since that debacle.

And if that shot catches the tree Sunday, who knows?

But it worked beautifully, despite Bones' pleas for the safe play.

"I tried to talk him into laying it up," Mackay admitted. "And he said no. Then we found out [K.J.] Choi had made [bogey] 6 [playing the hole ahead]. I went at it again with him. I tried again. He said definitely no.

"All he basically said is there's an opening in the trees and it's a 6-iron. 'All I have to do is execute. It's not like I have to hit a big hook or a big cut on a big ol' green.' Fair enough. So I got out of the way and you guys saw what he did."

Mackay noted that Mickelson's aggressiveness actually helped him the day prior, when he fired a 7-iron onto the same green to set up an eagle.

"That turned his tournament around," he said. "That eagle on 13 gave him so much momentum. It's a pin you can't really get to. He makes eagle there and then the ball goes in on 14 [for an eagle] and then in a sense you're feeling like, gosh, this could be our week."

Of course, for the longest time Sunday, it wasn't looking that way at all. A stamen somehow fell from the sky and landed right in Mickelson's line as he putted for birdie on the second hole. Sure enough, the ball hit it and went off line.

He didn't make his first birdie until the eighth hole, then had to get up and down for pars at the ninth, 10th and 11th holes. It wasn't like Mickelson was knocking down flagsticks, which is why the play at No. 13 will long be remembered.

"The gap wasn't huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through," Mickelson said to laughter. "I just felt like at that time, I needed to trust my swing and hit a shot, and it came off perfect."

Yes it did.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com