AUGUSTA, Ga. – For five months Tiger Woods begrudgingly dominated the spotlight. On Sunday Phil Mickelson and Augusta National took it back.
Good golf, the pundits claimed, would change a conversation that had lingered on unsavory items for far too long. They were right, but who knew the quality crafting would come byway an off-form lefty with wavering focus between a game that had come so easy to him at the end of 2009 and a wife who needed him.
For five months Woods has been reclusive and reticent. For five months Mickelson has been rusty and routinely, and rightly, distracted.
Turns out all Mickelson needed to get things back on track was Woods and a golf course that feels likes a comfortable sweeter. Alpha, it seems, needs omega to complete the championship cocktail.
The Masters Mickelson staked his claim to with his eagle-eagle-birdie blitz late Saturday afternoon was his long before he began the walk up the steep 18th fairway. By the 16th hole he was three clear of the field, the byproduct of the type of back-nine charge people remember, and he could have played to the crowd and skipped his tee shot across the pond like they do in practice rounds.
He played it straight, played the last three on a warm Sunday afternoon without flaw and had two coveted prizes waiting for him after holing his 8 footer for birdie at the last – a green jacket and a glowing wife, Amy, who has been absent from Tour life since being diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
“My wife has been through a lot this year and it means a lot to share some joy together,” Mickelson said in a broken voice. “She’s been an inspiration to me the last year.”
This week Mickelson gave his better-half plenty to cheer, to say nothing of the Augusta National faithful.
What started with Saturday’s back-nine fireworks came to a head when Mickelson reached the devilish 12th hole. He figured he needed to play famed Amen Corner in even par to keep pace with a leaderboard that turned over with each roar. He did one better, covering the hallowed ground in 2 under on his way to a closing 67, a 16-under 272 total and a three-shot victory.
There has been much made of Mickelson’s on-course evolution, some opining that he’d toned down his high-wire act in recent years, but at Augusta National he was every bit the “Thrill” of old.
At the 18th on Saturday and on the fifth on Sunday, Mickelson flopped and won, beating the odds and gravity and every ounce of reason in caddie Jim Mackay’s body for improbable pars via shots that looked like they may never fall from the sky.
On Sunday at the 13th, he beat the field the old fashion way, with bravado bordering on recklessness. From 207 yards through a 2-foot gap, and against Mackay’s subtle advice, Mickelson rifled a 6-iron from the pine straw to 4 feet. He missed the eagle putt, but his birdie dropped him to 12 under and two clear of a field that was running out of time.
“I tried to talk him out of it, he said no. I went at him again, he said definitely no,” Mackay laughed. “That’s Phil, he simplifies things. Give me the club and get out of the way.”
The powers that be wanted the pines to rattle, Mickelson rattled the pine straw at the 13th and put one arm in his third green jacket. He now owns more Augusta National green than all but three players named Jack, Arnie and Tiger.
As for the latter, the “return” ended with a mixed card. To wrap up Woods’ week, his best moments may have come on Monday when he held his mass Q&A with a curious media and didn’t break any china. But after four days of tournament golf maybe the biggest questions that remain are about his golf. And that’s progress by any measure.
He was solid Thursday and Friday, dodgy on Saturday and simply not sharp enough to get the job done on Sunday. For the record, Choi matched Woods shot-for-shot and side-by-side over 72 holes. It was Y.E. Yang all over again. Who knew Woods’ real Achilles ailment was Korean Kryptonite?
From the start Woods’ swing seemed out of sync and on Sunday he battled the dreaded two-way miss. He hit the ninth fairway, from the first tee, played an eventful outward loop of 35 that included three bogeys, two birdies and an eagle and was largely a non-story for the second-consecutive year on the back nine.
There were those who said a Woods victory straight out of his hiatus would not look good for the game. So, in that case, Karma wins.
Lost in that hyperbole, however, was Woods’ tie for fourth, his seventh consecutive year in the top six, a victory of form if not function given the circumstances.
“I had another terrible warm-up,” said Woods, who closed with 69 and tied with Choi in fourth place. “Big hook off of (No. 1), popped up my drive at (No. 2), bladed a chip at (No. 3).”
Sounds a lot like a man who missed five months on the job and his play suggests the only fix Woods needs is reps, which prompted one scribe to ask when he will play again?
“Think we’re playing the Monday qualifier for Hilton Head (Verizon Heritage) tomorrow,” Woods cracked.
He lost the tournament, but not his sense of humor. The same might not be said for Lee Westwood, the 54-hole leader who appeared poised to end all that Grand Slam heartache.
To be honest, Augusta National is not a place the Englishman had fallen for. Westwood’s miss is a quick left, which is an easy way to work one’s way off a leaderboard. But he’d put the time in to learn the Georgia gem’s secrets, floating in the week before the event to cram for the ultimate exam.
“That did him a world of good. All week it just made him feel comfortable and he’s starting to understand it,” said Chubby Chandler, Westwood’s manager.
The major enigma, however, continues to baffle Westwood, who completed the “Near-miss Slam” on Sunday with his runner-up showing. In the last two years he’s finished no worse than third at the U.S. Open (2008), British Open (2009), PGA Championship (2009) and now the Masters.
Fred Couples can relate. At 50 years old he was looking to top Jack Nicklaus, who won his last Masters at 46 in 1986. Instead, “Boom Boom” signed for a closing 70 and took the senior division, which comes with no jacket just a pair of Ecco shoes and no socks.
Couples’ title chances slipped away with a missed short putt at the 11th, a familiar theme, and were rinsed for good when his tee shot at the 12th hit the bank and rolled back into Rae’s Creek. Augusta National’s “second cut” must not have the grab that it did in 1992, when Couples beat the field and gravity with one of the all-time breaks to lift his green jacket.
“It was a great four days for me,” said Couples before boarding a golf cart bound for the greener pastures of the Champions Tour after his final-round 70 left him alone in sixth.
In order Choi and Anthony Kim, fresh from his Shell Houston Open victory, made spirited runs. The American born of Korean parents clawed into the game with a birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie run that began on the 13th hole. The Korean proper took a share of the lead with a 7 footer for birdie at the 10th hole, but neither could keep pace with Mickelson.
No one could. Not at a golf course that means so much. Not with fate smiling down from crystal clear skies and a wife and two children, the oldest of whom had to be rushed to an area emergency room with a fractured arm following a roller-skating mishap Saturday night, waiting happily.
“We refer to (Augusta National) as Phil’s playground,” Mackay said.
He’s finished outside the top 10 at Augusta National once in the last decade and he plays the venerable club’s closing nine the way Bobby Jones envisioned, with zeal. For the week Lefty was 13 under on the inward loop, including his no-bogey, four-birdie finish on Sunday.
To put it simply, “I love this place,” Mickelson said.
On Sunday – with Amy waiting behind the 18th green, 11 months removed from Tour life but beaming as if she’d never left – both Mickelson’s made a return at a place where it matters the most. Moments later they entered Butler Cabin together, holding hands, and it seemed like home.