Heady stuff from a guy who has logged more miles down Magnolia Lane than any active player, yet nearly 48 hours removed the emotions and enormity of Phil Mickelson’s bold second shot at Augusta National’s 13th hole had not faded.
Left unsaid in that context wasn’t whether Mickelson hit the “perfect shot,” but rather did he hit the right shot? History and a third green jacket would suggest that it doesn’t matter. But on a sun-splashed practice tee at cozy Harbour Town the Tuesday morning quarterbacks descended on the type of crossroads decision that defines careers.
There is no question the emotional victory was a boon for the game, but it may have set course management back 100 years.
“That’s why (Mickelson) wins a lot and loses a lot,” smiled one veteran caddie who, like most engaged in the great Mickelson debate, requested anonymity.
These are the facts, for those who have been in solitary confinement or in a comma for the last two days: with a one-stroke lead Mickelson roped his 6-iron second shot from 207 yards at the par-5 13th hole through a gap in two pine trees about 4 feet wide from a delicate lie on the pine straw, over Rae’s Creek to 4 feet. He missed the eagle putt, but the birdie virtually lifted Lefty to dormie status.
“A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it,” Mickelson said on Sunday at Augusta National.
It is also a fact that Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, made two runs at his boss in attempt to get him to layup. The first request was met with a, “no.” The second landed a stout, “definitely no.”
On Tuesday around the Tour office cooler most Tour players agreed that, in the same situation, they would have punched out short of the green and took their chances with a wedge and a putt.
“That’s unbelievable seeing where he was,” said Vaughn Taylor, an Augusta native who missed playing in the Masters this year but not a minute of the happenings on TV. “I was thinking, he’s got to lay up, then I hear him going, ‘hole high,’ and thought, ‘Hole high to what?’ He’s going for the green.”
For the record, Taylor said he would have laid up on the hole. Ditto for Heath Slocum and at least a half dozen other players.
“That’s what makes Phil Phil,” Slocum said. “He loves to gamble.”
Lost in the post-Masters hyperbole is the fact that this was, after all, the same DNA that sent Mickelson spiraling out of control down the 72nd fairway at Winged Foot a few years back. The fine line between success and failure in these situations has nothing on the tightrope between hero and hopeless.
“He has to lay up. Think about it, he makes birdie laying up 80 percent of the time,” one player said.
Mickelson ranks 27th on Tour in proximity to the hole (10 feet, 2 inch average) for shots from 50 to 75 yards and he’s converting 10-footers this year better than all but 47 player. By comparison, he’s 31st on Tour in scrambling, a fact that supports Mackay’s post-round reasoning that even if he hits into the creek his man could still make par.
One caddie suggested Mickelson should have hit 5-iron, assuring he could carry Rae’s Creek, but another pointed out that K.J. Choi ended up above the hole on Sunday and had little chance of getting up-and-down.
Simply put, players will question the play, not the player, and no one knew that better than Mackay, who – more so than perhaps any other caddie – has a standing invitation to butt in when Mickelson becomes unclear between what is prudent and what is possible.
“It seems like they are the ultimate team now,” Love said. “Bones has talked him off the ledge a lot.”
It’s a delicate line a caddie must walk when, like Mackay, his man is uninterested in advice or odds. A point must be made, but not at the cost of a player’s confidence or his ability to pull off the shot.
“I would say, ‘You can make birdie from anywhere but the water,’” said Col Swatton, Jason Day’s caddie. “How they interpret that is up to them, layup short, go for the green, whatever.”
What is certain, for Mickelson there is no failsafe. For all the talk in recent years that the “Thrill” was gone, Sunday’s theatrics prove that under the gun a singular talent will ignore the odds, conventional wisdom, history, even his own caddie if the reward outweighs the risks.
“Sometimes you stay out of the way because great players do great things,” Slocum said.
And sometimes they don’t, which is why he will always be the “Thrill.”