Commentary

'He was always going to go for it'

Updated: April 4, 2011, 6:08 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On his first trip back to Augusta National since winning his third green jacket, Phil Mickelson played a practice round last month with his longtime caddie, Jim Mackay -- the circumstances far different than the last time they were both here.

It was crisp, cool day, one on which to enjoy the sights and surroundings with two Augusta members, a chance to take in the atmosphere without the fanfare.

And when they got to the par-5 13th hole, the place where Mickelson hit the shot of the year in 2010 on his way to winning the Masters … nothing happened.

Lefty didn't go check out the lie in the pine straw, the small gap between the trees.

He didn't drop a ball or two to try and pull off the shot again -- a 6-iron through a small opening from 206 yards that Mickelson knocked over Rae's Creek and onto the green, setting up a birdie that gave him a two-shot advantage during the final round.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson's 2010 Masters victory was emotional for many reasons, but the biggest might have been what he and wife Amy had been through with their family's health.

Nope, they just kept on going, no reminiscing, no recreating.

"Been there, done that," Mickelson said, grinning.

Truth be told, it would have been a far different shot on this day in early March, colder than it was during the final round of last year's Masters, a bit of a breeze in his face.

But in the aftermath of the bold decision a year ago, Mickelson, 40, has shrugged it off as the shot he had to play, one that was not that difficult -- although he doesn't necessarily win the argument.

"It was harder than it looked on TV," Mackay said. "There was a gap between the trees that wasn't that wide. I was worried about him losing his footing and hitting one of the trees in front of him.

"When I saw the replay, it was weird … you can't see that he had 10 or 12 inches to go through. And of course the tree that he may hit on his follow-through. It was a really, really difficult shot."

And that's why, like any good caddie, Mackay, whose nickname is Bones, made sure to give his boss all the options. One of them was to lay up, which would still give Mickelson a good chance to make a birdie.

If the shot didn't come off, the ball would almost certainly end up in the water, meaning a tough up and down for a par.

Lefty was having none of it.

"I can quote exactly what Phil said to me," Bones said. "It was one of those moments."

They quickly went through the scenarios. Bones wanted to make sure the stance would be OK; that Mickelson pulled enough club; with K.J. Choi making 5 up ahead, he reminded Lefty that he led the tournament by one stroke.

"So I said, 'Phil, do you still want to go here?'" Bones recalled.

"He said, 'Listen, if I'm going to win this tournament today, at some point I'm going to have to hit a really good shot under a lot of pressure. I'm going to do it right now.'"

Mackay said, "You get out of the way at that point."

Lee Westwood was taking this all in. Trailing by two strokes at the time, he had also hit his drive through the fairway but didn't have a shot and chose to lay up.

He could tell a discussion was taking place, then walked up toward his ball as Mickelson swung and sent his shot into the air.

"If you went into percentages, 70 percent could have gone wrong, 30 percent could have gone right," Westwood said. "It's a high-tariff shot from the fairway, never mind behind a tree off the pine straw.

"And when it was in the air -- I was halfway down the fairway -- it looked in the water. It didn't look like it was going to carry, it was going right and it's about 15 yards longer to carry on that side. It looked like it was in the stream."

But the ball caught the right side of the green and stopped 4 feet from the cup.

"It was probably the shot of the year last year, I guess, under the circumstances and taking everything into account," said Westwood, who wedged on and made his birdie putt.

Stunningly, Mickelson missed the eagle putt, but still made his birdie to maintain a two-stroke lead that he would never relinquish on the way to a fourth major championship.

And the debate continues about Mickelson's decision.

"If you have a good lie, there is no question [that you go]," Stewart Cink said. "But all things being equal, he's more likely to go for it than me by maybe 5, 10, 20 percent. He's got that disposition already, more than I have."

"He had a 6-iron so it might be that or a 7-iron for me," said another lefty, Bubba Watson. "When you think of a 6- or 7-iron in your hand, that's a par-3. It's not a lay-up shot. The trees look tougher than they are. The lie was pretty good, so I'd try it."

Mackay said Mickelson's being a left-hander was another factor that made the shot more difficult.

Not because of the trees, but due to the ball flight necessary to pull off the shot.

"It was probably easier for a right-hander," he said. "Their miss is going to be left. They can hit it into the valley on the green. For us, you had to hit a draw for that aggressive shot. You're drawing it toward the pin but also toward the creek."

Given the same circumstances, three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said he likely would have done the same thing.

"It's not so much pulling it off. It's not pulling it off and being judged for not pulling it off," Harrington said. "The capability is there to do it. Doing it under pressure and taking it on, there is a lot of focus on that."

The lay-up dynamic is an interesting one as far as Mickelson is concerned. Twice he played with other competitors in the final twosome and watched them win majors at his expense by laying up on the last hole and then getting up and down for a one-stroke victory: Payne Stewart at the 1999 U.S. Open and David Toms at the 2001 PGA Championship.

And four years earlier, Mickelson was second-guessed after failing to lay up after a poor drive on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Mickelson could have punched out, wedged on, made the putt and won the tournament -- or at the least have been in a playoff if he two-putted for bogey. But his bold play led to a double-bogey and a crushing loss.

"There's not any point in discussing it; he was always going to go for it [at 13 last year]," Harrington said. "That's who he is. He takes these things on. That's where his ego is at, and it's very important for him to play to those strengths. Laying it up, hitting it close and making birdie … he might have regretted not going for it."

Quite obviously, Mickelson had no regrets at all.

"He's one of the best wedge players in the game, so you could argue that Bones was right and to pitch out and to go in from 100 yards would have been the safer play," Westwood said.

"But you know, he's an aggressive type of player, isn't he? So he goes for it. That's what everybody wants to see. That's why everybody likes watching him."

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com