Hard Work Destiny for Masters Champ


Destiny always seems to be the 15th club in the bag of a Masters champion.
No one can explain how a tuft of grass kept Fred Couples' ball from rolling into Rae's Creek on the par-3 12th in the final round of 1992. Ben Crenshaw felt the hand of Harvey Penick, who died the week before, guiding him around the back nine when he won the 1995 Masters. Tom Kite still doesn't understand how his birdie putt stayed out of the cup in 1986, allowing Jack Nicklaus a record sixth green jacket.
Phil Mickelson felt destiny was on his side last year at the Masters.
With 18 feet separating him from that elusive major championship, Mickelson's birdie putt on the 18th hole last year looked good until the final few feet, when it started to turn left to the corner of the cup.
The final few inches are still a blur. The ball caught the left lip of the cup, slid quickly around to the right side and suddenly disappeared, setting off an explosion of cheers for a Masters victory that was long overdue.
Most people will never forget the leap, such as it was.
With both arms in the air, Mickelson jumped for joy, an estimated 13 inches off the ground. President Bush poked fun at his vertical leap, and Lefty jokingly says the cameras didn't do him justice.
'I will take to my grave my belief that the cameras just did not catch me at the apex of my jump,' he said.
But as he looks back on a putt heard 'round the world, Mickelson believes he had some help.
For each of his first 21 victories on the PGA Tour, Mickelson gave his grandfather, Al Santos, the flag from the 18th hole. But after the 2002 Greater Hartford Open, Santos lost interest.
'Don't bring me any more flags unless it's for a major,' his grandfather told him. 'I want the Masters up there.'
Santos died three months before his grandson finally won a major.
'In the first split-second of that moment, I really believe that my grandfather nudged my ball back to the right just in the nick of time,' Mickelson writes in his book, 'One Magical Sunday (But Winning Isn't Everything).'
There were other factors at work.
Mickelson got the perfect read from Chris DiMarco, whose Masters hopes already had faded. He took two shots to get out of the bunker on No. 18, and the second one trickled an inch beyond Mickelson's marker.
They are good friends, and some wondered if DiMarco hit it there on purpose.
'Yeah, right,' DiMarco says. 'If I could have put it that close to his mark, why didn't I hit it that close to the hole?'
As he lined up his putt, Mickelson told him, 'Show me the way.'
'That was the only putt I really felt nervous on all day -- I mean really, really nervous,' DiMarco said. 'Because I knew if I didn't put a good putt on it, it was not going to show him anything. I knew he was going to make it. I might have been the only one. But I knew it was his time.
'He did it, and it was awesome.'
Mike Weir, the defending champion who slipped the size 43-long green jacket over Mickelson's shoulders at the award ceremony, offered a telling comment about destiny in an interview with Golf World magazine.
'At Augusta, your putts have to go in the center of the hole if you expect to make them,' Weir said. 'You don't see many putts catch the lip and go in, especially on the low side. This one lipped back and went in, and that never happens.
'Low side, breaking away -- you're meant to win when those things happen.'
Destiny? Maybe.
But no Masters champion ever stumbles into a green jacket without awesome skill and hard work. And that's why Mickelson believes he'll get plenty more chances to win the Masters over the next several years.
The guy who went 12 years without a major -- and with only three close calls during that pursuit -- found a routine last year that not only brought him the Masters, but nearly the Grand Slam.
Only a three-putt double bogey on the 71st hole kept him from the U.S. Open title. Playing for par when everyone around him was making birdies left him one shot out of a playoff at the British Open. And he was poised to win the PGA Championship until he couldn't make enough putts on the back nine at Whistling Straits.
To see Mickelson prepare for major events is exhausting.
He already has spent three days at Augusta National heading into this year's Masters, studying every conceivable angle around the greens, every blade of grass to understand where a putt might break.
At the Ryder Cup last year, it took Mickelson nearly nine hours to get through a practice round at Oakland Hills. Arriving at each hole, his caddie placed tiny flags around the green and Mickelson methodically made his way to each one of them, chipping out of the rough to imaginary holes on the green.
The man known as 'Genius' on tour is thinking overtime about his major preparation.
Mickelson is on a similar path as last year, starting strong to build momentum into the Masters. He won the FBR Open in Phoenix with a 60 in the second round. He went wire-to-wire at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, starting with a course-record 62 on Spyglass Hill, one of the toughest tracks in Northern California.
He was poised for a huge victory at Doral until Tiger Woods caught him on the back nine Sunday, winning only after Mickelson's chip from just off the green somehow grazed the edge instead of falling for birdie.
He looks forward to driving down Magnolia Lane as the defending champion, knowing he can return for the Masters the rest of his life. He won't have to sit through the same questions -- 'Is this the year you win a major?' -- at his news conference. He knows he is capable of winning every major he plays.
And he can't wait to get started.
'I have committed myself for the next six years, until I'm 40, to unquestioningly play as hard and practice as hard as I can, and try to get as much out of this game and my career as I possibly can,' Mickelson said.
And having destiny on his side never hurts.
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