Monday, April 12, 2004

Fans share Lefty's joy

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AUGUSTA, Ga. - And ultimately, this Masters restored the lump in everyone's throat.

That's what this event does best. Better than producing Sunday drama, better than offering memorable champions, better even than revering tradition by understanding that our past is what makes our present viable and our future full of hope.

Phil Mickelson won the Masters. He won it coming from ahead and from behind. He won it while bearing enough mental baggage to fill a shrink's couch. He won it with 30,000 people calling his name, on one of those dreamy, gilded afternoons the Masters has made famous. He won it with an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole. Mickelson made it, and the whole place got lighter with his joy.

Phil Mickelson celebrates after winning the Masters with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th green.
(AP photo)
"Daddy won," Mickelson said while holding his 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, moments after making the putt. "Can you believe it?"

Put Mickelson in the same photo with Jack Nicklaus in '86 and Ben Crenshaw in '95. Give his Sunday afternoon the same space as Arnie's final Masters round Friday and Tiger Woods' embrace with his father in '97. There are better sporting moments, in other places. There are better performances. There is never better emotion.

Who was pulling for Mickelson Sunday? Who wasn't? Who wasn't willing in that last putt? He'd been close so many times. He'd been best man at Tiger Woods' golf weddings so often, Mickelson should have renamed himself Reverend.

Oh-for-46 in majors. He'd heard it, again and again. Best Never To . . . Mickelson always faced the question with good humor and practicality: "I've got plenty of time . . . if I just keep working . . . "He seemed to sense he would get his, eventually.

You got that same sense from him Sunday afternoon. At the Masters, back-nine Sunday contenders stride the lawn like they're going to jail or church or both. Mickelson looked like a kid going to the ice cream shop: Shambling gate, Everyman walk. Goofy grin. Yogi Bear, seeking a pic-a-nic basket.

That was partly Phil being Phil, and partly the work he put in over the winter. Preparation yields confidence. At 33, Mickelson knew he needed to change his freewheeling approach to the game. He worked with Rick Smith and Dave Pelz so much, he assumed he'd play better and smarter. "Every time I stood on the tee box, I knew I would drive it in the fairway," he said.

At the 16th, Mickelson had a slippery 18-foot putt to tie Ernie Els for the lead. Els had been spectacular all day, rallying from three behind with a pair of eagles and the sort of gutsy, back-nine par-savers that generally result in a green coat.

Els had the lead for two hours. He took everyone's best shot. When Mickelson made the last putt, Els was on the practice green, preparing for a playoff.

At 16, Mickelson said he knew the putt would go in. "I'll make this putt and birdie one of the last two," he said. Amazing stuff from a 33-year-old who, until now, spent Sundays at major championships waiting for the sky to fall.

"When I was on the course, I didn't feel the anxiety," Mickelson said. "I was very confident today that good things would happen."

He made the putt at 16, his fourth birdie in five holes.

The tee shot at 18 was dead center. Mickelson climbed the last fairway with a child's gaze gracing his face. His second shot came up 15 feet beyond the hole. That's when Mickelson's friend and playing partner, Chris DiMarco, did the friendliest thing: DiMarco's blast from a greenside bunker landed just in front of Mickelson's ball, giving Mickelson a perfect read on his putt.

Mickelson's putt caught the left edge and circled in.

"None of it right now is relief," Mickelson said. "I feel excited, ecstatic. A little disbelief. I have an experience I'll remember the rest of my life."

We pull for guys like Phil Mickelson. The strivers, those who accept defeat with grace and who promise to come back the next time. We root for them when they don't win. We feel the lump when they finally do. Phil Mickelson won the Masters and everyone felt good.

"I get to come back next year," Mickelson said. "And every year for the rest of my life."

We get to watch him. Lucky for us.



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Photos of Sunday's game
Relievers leave club stress-free
Kearns finally gets bat, ball to meet
Reds at Phillies series preview
Ephedra ban begins today
NL: Wood stymies Braves
AL: Ortiz bomb stops Jays in 12th
AAA: Louisville 12, Norfolk 3
Notes from Sunday's games

Daugherty: Fans share Lefty's joy
Just call him Major Mickelson - finally
Els is masterful, but it isn't enough
Another major comes and goes without Woods

For Cyclones, the plot took wrong twists
Kovalev's two goals pace Habs

Pacers-Celtics rematch set
After five years, Sixers' playoff run is finished

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