A giant hiccup in golf's cosmic order

Phil Mickelson's win, finally, erases doubts about ability to win big one

Late Sunday afternoon, something extraordinary happened in the gathering dusk of an overcast Georgia afternoon: The golf world forgot about Tiger Woods. During those final few precarious putts at the Masters, there was no teeth-gritted fist-pumping to stoke the raucous galleries, and yet they cheered with no less enthusiasm. There was no talk of golfers breaking historic records, and yet the moment was no less profound.

There was, instead, a day of drama unlike any seen in a generation as a champion was finally fitted for his winner's green jacket after a wait more agonizing than the trials of Tantalus.

Technically, when Phil Mickelson's putt spun into the cup on the 18th green, it marked the sixth consecutive major tournament won by a player who had never before won a major. But in truth, Mickelson was much more than "the best player never to win a major." He was - and remains - the central figure in a collar-shirted cult whose initiates carry a deep appreciation for the pitching wedge and can name every hole of Amen Corner.

Mickelson is, in short, the golfer's golfer - a Tiger shorn of the trappings of Nike ads and a Swedish fiancée. The repertoire of shots is just as sweet, but for more than a decade it betrayed him at the most important moments. This weekend, however, Mickelson offered the clearest sign yet that he has mastered the often-infuriating inconsistencies of his game, and that at last his battle with Woods - and golf's other greats - has begun.

"The best thing for golf right now would be for [Mickelson] to win a major," Cameron Morfit of Golf Magazine said before the Masters began.

Now he has, and the way he did it could hardly have been more convincing. He not only won the Masters, he took it by the scruff of the neck. The excuses were there for another almost - after all, Ernie Els played the last 11 holes as if freed from the laws of physics, scoring 3s on two Par 5s and pulling the ball around the greens as if on a string. Moreover, this was the newer, tougher Augusta National, where late-round heroics were supposed to be a thing of the past.

Yet something in the cosmic order hiccuped late Sunday afternoon. On a day that saw two holes-in-one at the 16th hole in 10 minutes - after seeing only seven in the previous 67 years - Mickelson made the supposedly impossible late charge, tapping in from 18 feet on the last hole to win with a birdie.

This was not the Mickelson of old. For years, he approached every tournament as if it were a trick-shot competition, trying to win while doing the unthinkable with his prodigious skill. The technique won him fans - here was the everyman refusing to compromise to common sense - but it lost him tournaments.

"What fascinates people about Mickelson was that he had all the talent in the world, but he was unwilling to modify his approach," says Matt Rudy of Golf Digest. People love him for "that sense of making those go-for-broke decisions no matter what the consequences."

Those consequences, however, began to mount. Last year, he won no tournaments at all. And before the Masters, his record at golf's four majors stood at 42 played, zero won - an unthinkable failure rate for a player of his talent. Sure, he'd finished in the top 10 at majors 17 times as a pro, including two runner-up finishes, but the trick-shot artist was becoming the Chicago Cubs of the golf world - a lovable loser.

"He became a bit of a tragic hero because he came so close to getting it done," says Andy North of ESPN.

This weekend, the golf world witnessed a new Mickelson. Before the Masters, he pointed out that if he had shaved one stroke off each round the past three years he would have finished at least tied for first each year. This year, he put his newfound reserve into practice, repeatedly reining in his arsenal to play the tamer - but more intelligent - stroke.

It was never more obvious than on the last hole of the tournament, where Els played aggressively and put his drive into a bunker, forcing him into a tough par. Mickelson, by contrast, eased off the drive, plopping it shorter but directly in the fairway and leading to his birdie.

It was, for one afternoon, a heavyweight title bout - a scene that golf fans and Mickelson himself had anticipated since he won his first pro tournament while still an amateur more than a decade ago.

When Mickelson was introduced at a pre-tournament press conference last week, he interrupted the host, who was listing his accomplishments at the Masters, by adding wistfully, "But no wins."

No longer.

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