Monday, April 12, 2004

Just call him Major Mickelson - finally


His Masters: Lead, collapse, comeback, thrilling finish

By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Phil Mickelson in a green jacket. Even he had a hard time believing it.

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Phil Mickelson puts on his 2004 Masters green jacket with the help of last year's winner, Mike Weir.
(AP photo)
The final leg in his odyssey to win a major championship came down to an 18-foot putt Sunday, the kind Mickelson had grown weary of watching others make as he stood to the side.

This time, the last chance belonged to him, a birdie putt that kept him in suspense to the very end. It rolled toward the cup, swirled around the left edge and dropped in.

Mickelson leapt as high as he could and threw both arms in the air, kissed the ball that he plucked from the cup and tossed it into a delirious crowd that felt the same way.

Finally!

"It almost feels like make-believe," Mickelson said. "My first thought was, 'I did it! I finally did it!' I knew I could, but I finally did it."

Those who doubted only had to look at his poise along a dramatic back nine at Augusta National as Ernie Els tried to pull away with an eagle, a birdie and a collection of clutch pars.

Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes and shot 31 on the back - the best finish by a Masters champion since Jack Nicklaus had a 30 in 1986. He closed with a 69.

The best proof of all was a 43-long green jacket.

"I can't believe this is happening," Mickelson said after Mike Weir slipped the jacket over his shoulders. Sure beats the other thing he's been carrying on his back for 12 years.

"This is the fulfillment of dreams," he said. "I'm just proud to be a champion here. It was an exceptional, unbelievable back nine, and it's something I'll remember forever and ever."

Even as he sat in fabled Butler Cabin, he was reliving the 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th that gave him a share of the lead, and an 18-footer on the final hole that made Mickelson only the fourth player in Masters history to win with a birdie on the final stroke of the tournament.

Until Sunday, he was known as the best player to have never won a major.

Now, he's simply one of the best in the game.

"I didn't think there was any way he would miss it," said Chris DiMarco, who played in the final group and had a par putt from exactly the same line that allowed Mickelson to get a good read.

Els felt helpless after closing with a 67. He was rapping putts on the practice green, hopeful of a playoff and a chance for the third leg of the Grand Slam, but was jolted into despair at the sound of the cheer.

"I played as good as I could," Els said. "What more can you do, you know?"

Mickelson knows that feeling all too well. Of the half-dozen close calls he has had in the majors, nothing was more jarring than Payne Stewart holing a 15-foot par putt on the final hole at Pinehurst to win the '99 U.S. Open, or David Toms making par from 12 feet at the '01 PGA Championship to beat Mickelson by one shot.

"I think Phil deserved this one," Els said. "Full credit to him."

Before walking into the scoring hut to sign his card, Mickelson grabbed daughter Amanda and said, "Daddy won. Can you believe it?"

Mickelson finished at 9-under 279 and earned $1.17 million for his 23rd career victory.

This was the sixth straight major won by a first-timer - something that had never happened in 144 years of championship golf.

K.J. Choi holed a 5-iron from 220 yards on the 11th hole for eagle, kept his hopes alive with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 13th but wound up with a 69, three shots behind.

Tiger Woods was long gone before the fireworks started. He made a double bogey - his third of the tournament - on the 13th hole and shot 71, leaving him 11 shots out of the lead in a tie for 22nd, his worst finish ever at the Masters.

Woods now has gone seven majors without winning, and he has played his last five over par.

But this Masters didn't need him to deliver the drama.

With aces and eagles, so many spectacular shots along the back nine that the gallery was out of breath, it came down to Mickelson and Els in a duel as good as any at a major championship.

Els, playing two groups ahead of Mickelson, beat him on the par 5s with an eagle and a birdie.

Mickelson answered with an approach to the dangerous 14th that grazed the cup for a tap-in birdie, and a 15-foot birdie on the par-3 16th, a hole that has haunted him in the past.

"Baby!" Mickelson said as he trotted off the green, tied for the lead with two holes to play.

Playing the final hole, Els hit into a bunker so deep he could only see the hazy sky. He blasted out and said, "Be right!" and it stopped some 25 feet behind the cup. His birdie putt turned just left of the hole.

Mickelson had never come to the final hole in a major with a share of the lead.

He never faced a more important putt in his life. He never showed so much raw emotion when it was over.

"I was watching myself look like an idiot on the 18th green after I made the putt and really didn't care," he said. "It was just so much fun."

Only two other players - Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper (31) and MacDonald Smith (24) - had more PGA Tour victories than Mickelson's 22 without ever winning a major.

Some began to doubt it would ever happen, especially since Mickelson was coming off his worst season ever. A year ago, he nearly lost his wife, Amy, during a difficult birth of their first son.

He refused to start practicing until Jan. 1, determined to put last year behind him. Now, Mickelson can look forward to many more tries at majors, without the pressure of having to win his first.

"Get used to me, because I'm going to be back every year," he told Augusta National members.

It wasn't easy - not over the last 12 years, not over the last 12 holes.

Despite two sloppy bogeys out of bunkers, Els shot into the lead and took control with a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 7, then one of the purest shots of the day - a 5-iron that caught enough of the slope at No. 8 to feed down to 6 feet for an eagle.

That put the Big Easy in the lead, and set the stage for the typical high drama at the Masters.

So much for the changes taking away all the excitement on the back. This was as thrilling a Sunday afternoon as there has ever been at the Masters.

Padraig Harrington made a hole-in-one on the par-3 16th and Kirk Triplett aced the same hole a few minutes later.

Sergio Garcia whet everyone's appetite by playing the final four holes in 4 under par - one of those an eagle from inside a foot on No. 15 - for a 31 on the back nine and a 66, the lowest score of this Masters.

Mickelson couldn't help but hear it all. First came the cheers for him - "It's your year, Phil. Make it happen!" - one man shouted. Then came the roars from all corners of the course.

The last cheer was for him. That was a first.

Masters Par Scores

Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club

Augusta, Ga.Yardage: 7,290; Par: 72 (a-amateur)

Phil Mickelson, $1,170,00072-69-69-69-279-9
Ernie Els, $702,00070-72-71-67-280-8
K.J. Choi, $442,00071-70-72-69-282-6
Sergio Garcia, $286,00072-72-75-66-285-3
Bernhard Langer, $286,00071-73-69-72-285-3
Paul Casey, $189,89375-69-68-74-286-2
Fred Couples, $189,89373-69-74-70-286-2
Chris DiMarco, $189,89369-73-68-76-286-2
Davis Love III, $189,89375-67-74-70-286-2
Nick Price, $189,89372-73-71-70-286-2
Vijay Singh, $189,89375-73-69-69-286-2
Kirk Triplett, $189,89371-74-69-72-286-2
Retief Goosen, $125,66775-73-70-70-288E
Padraig Harrington, $125,66774-74-68-72-288E
Charles Howell III, $125,66771-71-76-70-288E
a-Casey Wittenberg76-72-71-69-288E
Stewart Cink, $97,50074-73-69-73-289+1
Steve Flesch, $97,50076-67-77-69-289+1
Jay Haas, $97,50069-75-72-73-289+1
Fredrik Jacobson, $97,50074-74-67-74-289+1
Stephen Leaney, $97,50076-71-73-69-289+1
Stuart Appleby, $70,20073-74-73-70-290+2
Shaun Micheel, $70,20072-76-72-70-290+2
Justin Rose, $70,20067-71-81-71-290+2
Tiger Woods, $70,20075-69-75-71-290+2
Alex Cejka, $57,20070-70-78-73-291+3
Mark O'Meara, $51,02573-70-75-74-292+4
Bob Tway, $51,02575-71-74-72-292+4
Scott Verplank, $48,10074-71-76-72-293+5
Jose Maria Olazabal, $46,15071-69-79-75-294+6
Bob Estes, $41,27576-72-73-74-295+7
Brad Faxon, $41,27572-76-76-71-295+7
Jerry Kelly, $41,27574-72-73-76-295+7
Ian Poulter, $41,27575-73-74-73-295+7
Justin Leonard, $35,91376-72-72-76-296+8
Phillip Price, $35,91371-76-73-76-296+8
Paul Lawrie, $32,66377-70-73-77-297+9
Sandy Lyle, $32,66372-74-75-76-297+9
Eduardo Romero, $30,55074-73-74-77-298+10
Todd Hamilton, $29,25077-71-76-75-299+11
Tim Petrovic, $2795072-75-75-78-300+12
a-Brandt Snedeker73-75-75-77-300+12
Jeff Sluman, $26,65073-70-82-77-302+14
Chris Riley, $23,35070-78-78-78-304 +16




REDS / BASEBALL
Reds say foundation in place
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

THE 2004 MASTERS
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

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

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

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