Phil Mickelson may not have played the high-percentage shot. Or the smart shot. Or the shot his caddie and swing coach wanted him to play.
But he played a great shot. He played one of the 10 greatest shots in the history of the Masters on his way to winning a third green jacket last year.
The memory of the drama at the 13th still resonates with Mickelson returning to defend his title at Augusta National.
From the trees right of the fairway, 207 yards out, with Mickelson looking like his only play was to punch out of the pine straw, caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay saw a familiar light playing in Mickelson’s eyes in the final round.
“Listen, there’s an opening in the trees, and it’s just a 6-iron,” Mickelson told Mackay. “All I have to do is execute. It’s not like I have to hit a big hook or big cut. I have to hit a 6-iron on a big ol’ green.”
That’s how Mackay recounted the exchange. Of course, the shot wasn’t nearly as simple as Mickelson laid it out.
The gap in the trees was about 4 feet wide. Mickelson was playing off pine straw, and he had to carry the tributary to Rae’s Creek. With Mickelson leading by two shots, memories of his infamous last drive off a hospitality tent to lose the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006 had to be dancing in the heads of his fans.
“God, I’m such an idiot,” Mickelson said after his failure back then.
His 6-iron on that Masters’ Sunday a year ago looked like it could put Mickelson in another dunce cap, but Mackay couldn’t talk Mickelson out of the shot.
“So I got out of the way,” Mackay said.
And Mickelson played a shot that ranks among the best and boldest in major championship history, a glorious arrow that stopped 4 feet from the flagstick. Mickelson missed the eagle putt, but the birdie propelled him, filled him with the confidence he needed to finish off the victory.
Lee Westwood played alongside Mickelson that day. Almost a year later, he isn’t surprised Mickelson gambled.
“I knew he’d fancy having a go at it,” Westwood said. “That’s Phil’s personality, and game, as well. He’s that kind of player.”
Ernie Els still marvels at the play.
“Vintage Phil,” Els said. “It’s a great shot by a great athlete. It’s win or nothing.”
Mickelson understands how differently the shot looked to others, how a failed play could have destroyed his momentum.
“If you're on the outside looking in, and you see this guy in the pine needles, and the trees and stuff, trying to hit a shot through the trees and around the trunks and over the water, I could see somebody questioning that,” Mickelson said. “But when you're in it, when you're out there in it, and you see the lie, and you see the shot, and you see the target, it doesn't seem as daunting. But as I kind of looked back and saw some of the pictures, I was like, `What was I doing?’ But it worked out.”
Would Mickelson make the same play again? Of course he would. In fact, he might try it again in his practice rounds next week.
“I may,” Mickelson said. “I probably will go to that spot. I do that every year on the final putt that I made in 2004 to win. I hit that putt every time I play there. I very well may go to that spot [at No. 13] because that is an important spot, an important shot for the tournament last year, and I will look at that. However, I do plan on hitting the fairway all four days.”
Here’s how we rank Mickelson’s shot among the greatest in Masters’ history:
1. Gene Sarazen’s double eagle at the 15th (1935)
In the final round of regulation, Sarazen hit what’s been called “the shot heard around the world.” Three down at the 15th tee, Sarazen holed his second shot, a 4-wood from 235 yards, to pull even with Craig Wood. The momentum helped Sarazen defeat Wood in a playoff the next day.
2. Larry Mize’s chip at the 11th (1987)
Mize, the hometown kid, broke Greg Norman’s heart bouncing in a chip for birdie from 140 feet to win their playoff.
3. Tiger Woods’ chip at the 16th (2005)
After missing the green left, Woods coaxed a circuitous chip up and around the dramatic slope at the 16th green in the final round, with his ball pausing for dramatic effect on the lip of the hole before tumbling in for birdie. He would go on to defeat Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
4. Phil Mickelson’s 6-iron through the trees at the 13th (2010)
The risk was so great, if Mickelson doesn’t pull off the shot, he kills his momentum and potentially damages his confidence. Sure, he might have saved par after a miss, but he risked putting the demon of doubt in his ball striking coming down the stretch.
5. Jack Nicklaus’ tee shot at the 16th (1986)
In Nicklaus’ dramatic final-round charge at 46, he nearly holed his 5-iron at No. 16. With the ball in the air, Nicklaus’ son and caddie, Jackie, yelled out, “Be the right club.” Nicklaus barely bothered watching, leaning down to get his tee while saying, “It is.” Nicklaus made birdie on his way to a sixth green jacket.
6. Doug Ford’s bunker shot at the 18th (1957)
Trailing Sam Snead, who was playing behind him, Doug Ford shot 32 on the back nine on Sunday, saving his best shot for last to secure the victory. After leaving a 7-iron short in the greenside bunker at the 18th, Ford stepped over a buried lie. He holed out for birdie and a 66, the best final-round score to that point in Masters’ history.
7. Sandy Lyle’s fairway bunker shot at the 18th (1988)
After driving into a fairway bunker at the final hole, Lyle was in an awkward spot near the lip. He clipped a clever 7-iron, setting up an 8-foot birdie that made him Scotland’s first Masters’ champ.
8. Billy Joe Patton’s hole-in-one at the sixth (1954)
Patton didn’t win as an amateur, but he made a run at history, holing a 5-iron for an ace at the 190-yard sixth hole. A hole-in-one? In the final round? While contending? It was a dramatic shot, though Patton missed out on a playoff with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan by a shot after rinsing a shot at the 13th.
9. Arnold Palmer’s 3-wood at the 13th in (1958)
Following the famed controversy at the 12th in the final round, when Palmer took a drop and played two balls before gaining a favorable ruling, Palmer hit a 3-wood to 18 feet at the 13th to set up an eagle that propelled him to his first green jacket.
10. Lee Elder’s first drive (1975)
How can a player’s first shot in a championship be deemed great? When it’s under the pressure of being the first shot by the first African-American to play in the Masters. Elder hit the fairway with a fade.