It was over in a blur. A cruel carom, a pair of awkward attempts from the wrong side of the ball, and when it was over it all added up to a triple-bogey 6 and a near miss at the tournament that means the most to Phil Mickelson.
Lefty had his chances coming down the stretch but could never close the gap on Louis Oosthuizen and eventual Masters champion Bubba Watson, and it will be his implosion at No. 4, not all those missed birdie attempts on the back nine, that will be filed away in Masters lore.
Yet this wasn’t Winged Foot. If the 2006 U.S. Open was pure heartbreak, the 2012 Masters felt more like a bad break. Whereas the ’06 national championship was filled with self-loathing, last week was tempered by the satisfaction that he played the percentages and got burned.
“Tactically what I try to do there is aim left of the pin and I try to hit either the left edge or in the bunker or just left of the bunker where I'm chipping up the green, chipping into the slope. Usually I can get that up-and-down and make par. If not, I make a 4,” said Mickelson late Sunday after finishing tied for third place, two strokes out of the playoff.
“If it goes into people and stops right there, no problem. If it goes into the grand stand, no problem. It hit the metal railing and shot in the trees . . .”
If that doesn’t exactly fit the soundtrack of the feisty competitor consider Mickelson’s affinity for the former fruit nursery. It’s a love affair that stretches back to 1989 and Lefty’s freshman year at Arizona State.
Mickelson’s coach flew the team to north Georgia that year to play in the annual Augusta State tournament, which is held the week before the Masters. After the tournament, which Mickelson won, ASU coach Steve Loy bused the team over to Augusta National to watch a practice round.
“I did that on purpose,” said Loy, who is now Mickelson’s manager. “It’s the only time we ever played (the Augusta State tournament).”
Loy told his team to enjoy themselves and to meet under the iconic oak tree behind the clubhouse at 5 p.m.
“Phil comes running over to me about 3 p.m. and says, ‘Let’s go,’” Loy recalled. “The guy that I was here for the most says let’s go.
“I can tell he’s mad. He’s quiet and I don’t say anything to him until we get back to the airport and I ask what’s wrong? He says, ‘Don’t ever bring me out here again until I get to play.’ That’s how long he’s loved this place.”
In 1996 Jack Nicklaus said of a very young Tiger Woods that he “should” win more green jackets than himself (six) and Arnold Palmer (four) combined, yet as the course, and Lefty’s game, has evolved it’s starting to feel like Mickelson is better equipped to match if not both legends then perhaps the Golden Bear’s half dozen green jackets.
Since 2002 when the course underwent “significant changes,” Mickelson has won all three of his Masters titles, while Woods has won just one of his four (2005).
Part of Lefty’s success at Augusta National is a question of simple geometry and genetics. As a southpaw it’s easier for Mickelson to play a high, right-to-left fade that stops quickly than it is for a right-handed golfer to play a high draw. See Martin Kaymer in 2011.
“I think that being a lefty maybe on the back kind of helps him. Twelve is an easier shot,” said Keegan Bradley, who made two scouting trips to Augusta National with Mickelson prior to this year’s tournament. “He can hit drivers on 13 and 10 and get it way down there.”
But that only partially explains the phenomenon that Fred Couples called “Phil’s playground.”
There is a passion for the place that transcends the simplicity of routing and physics, a genuine affection that drove Mickelson out to the first tee just past dawn last Thursday, some six hours before his opening-round tee time to watch Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first tee shots.
“I had no idea he was going out there Thursday morning, but it just speaks to all the things we take for granted in the game and a guy that is that deep will remember it the most,” Loy said. “He wanted to be there for that historic moment.”
When Mickelson began the final round last week one stroke behind front-runner Peter Hanson some had already began fitting him for his fourth green jacket, which would tie him on the all-time list for second place with Woods and Palmer.
In fairness to Mickelson, he has come by his perennial favorite status honestly.
In 18 starts since 1995 Mickelson has missed just one cut, finished outside the top 10 only four times and has five third-place finishes to go with his three victories. He’s also authored some of the tournament’s greatest shots, including his carving 6-iron off the pine straw and between two trees on Sunday at No. 13 on his way to victory, and his gravity-defying flop shot at the 15th last Saturday to assure himself a spot in Sunday’s anchor pairing.
Much has been made of Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors, but it seems Mickelson now has his sights set on one of the Golden Bears’ benchmarks – six green jackets.
“(Woods) will probably be the favorite over the next 20 years. If he isn't, there's something wrong,” Nicklaus reasoned way back in 1996.
How times have changed.