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My 2016 moment: When Taylor upset Mickelson

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On a sun-splashed February afternoon, there are few better spots to post up than the area behind the 18th green at Pebble Beach.

The cool ocean breeze wafts across Stillwater Cove as waves crash into the bunker lining the final fairway at perhaps the most scenic golf course in America, a surreal outpost where land and sea converge to create a masterpiece.

The scene is even more epic during the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, as the few dozen yards of turf behind the green become a meeting point for golfers, families and celebrities from all walks of life. Bill Murray to your left, Jake Owen to your right, and if you blink you just might miss Wayne Gretzky.

So it was there, under the sunny sky and among the most unique cross-section of people the PGA Tour can muster, that my most memorable moment played out.

Pebble Beach was supposed to mark the return of Phil Mickelson. Having come close in Palm Springs a few weeks prior, Lefty took a two-shot lead into the final round on a course he knew well. This, everyone surmised, would be a coronation along 17-Mile Drive as he won for the first time since the 2013 Open.

But golf is a funny game, and trophies aren’t handed out until the final putt is holed.

So as Mickelson stalled down the stretch, everyone in the media center did a double-take over the name of his hard-charging challenger: Vaughn Taylor.

Gray: Taylor completes slow climb back to good life on PGA Tour

Taylor was an unremarkable journeyman, his two wins having come more than a decade ago, both in Reno. These days he was playing more on the Tour than the main stage, and his most recent start had ended prematurely as a stomach virus forced him into an ambulance in Colombia.

“I think it’s better to not have a taste of the good life out here,” Taylor said. “It almost makes it harder because you know how good it is out here, and we get treated so well. It’s almost too much sometimes.”

Taylor’s journey nearly came to an abrupt end 18 months prior, when a boating accident near his Georgia home almost cost him his life.

“There was a moment he didn’t think he’d be back,” recalled Taylor’s wife, Leot. “Be back on shore, and be back in our house. That was scary.”

But Taylor survived, and he kept climbing the Pebble Beach leaderboard before dropping a lengthy putt on the 16th hole. Suddenly, he was the man to beat.

Mickelson, though, remained undeterred. He coolly rolled in a birdie putt on the famed 17th hole, setting up an easy scenario: birdie on the par-5 18th to force a playoff where he would be the heavy favorite.

And so it was there, behind the 18th green, that my moment played out. Taylor wrapped his arm around Leot, who was dressed in a bright-red sweater to commemorate Valentine’s Day. The two could barely watch as Mickelson stepped to his 5-foot putt just a few yards away, one that would send the tournament to overtime.

The handful of writers joining me just behind the green were all in agreement: the putt would find the hole, and the Mickelson victory columns we had been massaging all afternoon would still see the light of day.

But he missed.

Amid the audible gasps, and while Mickelson doubled over still in disbelief, there was a single cry of joy.

“You did it,” Leot screamed just before bursting into tears, her arms around the newly-minted champion.

The biggest wins by the biggest players often create the most lasting images. But every now and then, the ending gets re-written. As my colleagues and I took stock of what we had just seen, this much was clear: a win for Mickelson would have been nice, but a win for Taylor changed his life. And it all came down to a 5-foot putt amid the most beautiful setting you can come across.