The window of opportunity was small, the margin for error both broad and severe. “A great shot is when you pull it off,” Mickelson would say upon claiming the green jacket for a third time in seven years. “A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”
As impromptu quotes go, it was a line as brilliant as the shot itself, spoken by a man whose outrageous skill is accompanied by an abnormally high level of self-confidence, which is derived from his ability to assess situations quickly, clearly and objectively. Mickelson’s decision to hammer that 6-iron off a quirky lie from 207 yards – a shot that seemed to hang in the air for most of the afternoon before stopping about 4 feet from the flag – was a huge risk with a massive reward, a stroke of genius some would instantly describe as one of the greatest in golf history.
There’s just one little problem.
He missed the putt.
Mickelson had a 4-footer for eagle and walked away with a birdie, the same score as fellow competitor Lee Westwood, who also played his second from the right trees, laid up, then knocked a wedge to 10 feet. Much like Corey Pavin’s approach on the 72nd hole of the 1995 U.S. Open, Lefty struck one of the most memorable and important shots of the modern era, then forgot to blow out one of the candles before slicing the cake.
You say it doesn’t matter? How can it not? In a game where score is the only barometer of success and failure, the historic value of Mickelson’s second at the par-5 13th is at least partially compromised by his overall result on the hole, which should have been a 3 but was instead a 4. Otherwise, we’re talking about sheer artistry, which requires a panel of judges similar to those in ice skating and “Dancing With the Stars.”
The greatest shots of all-time must directly affect the balance of competition, especially when they occur late in the game. Tiger Woods’ chip-in from behind the 16th green at the 2005 Masters is a perfect example. From a spot where he should have made a 4 and might have made a 3, Tiger made a 2. Was it a lucky birdie, as Woods himself admitted? Absolutely, but the ball still fell in the hole, and good for him that it did, because Woods bogeyed the 17th and 18th before overcoming Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
If Tiger loses, is the chip still remarkable? Sure, but it doesn’t rank as highly on the Greatest Ever list, regardless of where you have it now. Speaking of which, Y.E. Yang’s hybrid over the trees on Hazeltine’s 18th at last summer’s PGA was awfully good – it gave him the cushion he needed to defeat Woods, a historic triumph capped by a swing as clutch and productive as any you’ll find in any decade.
For my money, Larry Mize’s birdie chip to beat Greg Norman in 1987 remains the best shot in Masters history. Jack Nicklaus’ long iron nto the 15th, which led to an eagle and launched the Miracle of ’86, is no more than a half-length behind, followed by Tiger’s chip, Mickelson’s birdie putt on the 18th to beat Ernie Els in 2004 – a first Masters title for a guy who, at the time, was the Much Maligned One – and the 6-iron last Sunday.
Nobody in the Golf Channel newsroom howled louder than me when Mickelson’s stopped just right of the flag. Nobody groaned louder when the eagle putt slid past the hole.