At last, Mickelson is first

On final hole, he sinks 18-foot birdie putt to win 1st major after 42 misses

`It feels almost make-believe'

He shoots 31 on back nine to beat Els by one stroke

The Masters

April 12, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Phil Mickelson seemed destined for more frustration yesterday in the 68th Masters. The player known for not winning major championships - and losing a number of them - appeared headed in that miserable direction again.

Something altered Mickelson's fate during the final round at Augusta National. It was the kind of divine spirit that often presents itself on the back nine, floating down from behind the Georgia pines.

With five birdies on the back nine, including an 18-foot putt on the final hole, Mickelson overcame a momentary three-shot deficit to beat Ernie Els of South Africa in one of the most thrilling major championships.

FOR THE RECORD - Also, an article on Phil Mickelson's Masters victory stated incorrectly that he had not won a tournament in more than a year. In fact, Mickelson won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January.

A 3-under-par 69, which included a 31 on the back nine, gave Mickelson a four-round total of 9-under 279, one stroke better than Els and three ahead of K.J. Choi of South Korea.

The victory was Mickelson's 23rd in his career, but more significantly was his first major championship after 42 misses as a pro, including three straight third-place finishes here and three in which Mickelson finished second.

"I think having in the past 10 years come so close so many times, to have had putts made on me in the last holes to lose by a shot, to have good last rounds fall short, to have bad last rounds and fall short, to have it be such a difficult journey makes it that much more special, sweeter, and it just feels awesome," Mickelson, 33, said.

Asked whether he felt a bit relieved to have won, and lost his claim of being the best player in the world without a major, Mickelson said: "None of it right now is relief. It feels awesome. I'm so excited. I have something that I will remember, I have a memory or an experience that I'll remember for the rest of my life."

So will Els. It was a stupefying loss for Els, who played brilliantly himself after a sloppy start and shot a round of 5-under 67 that included two eagles, the second of which came on the par-5 13th hole and briefly gave him a three-stroke lead.

"It's a lot to explain," said Els, 34, who was looking for his fourth major championship and first Masters after being in contention here the past five years, including a second-place finish to Vijay Singh in 2000. "I played as good as I could. What more can you do? I guess Phil deserved this one."

More than an hour after the winning putt slid into the left edge of the cup, spinning for a second before dropping, the long-suffering Mickelson was still in disbelief that his biggest victory had not been just another devastating defeat.

"It feels almost make-believe," said Mickelson, the second straight left-hander to win the Masters.

Mickelson, who had pulled even with Els at 8-under with four birdies in five holes, credited the line he had in reading playing partner Chris DiMarco's nearly identical putt on the par-4 18th for helping him make the shot.

But Mickelson believed that the reason DiMarco's putt turned away from the cup and his own fell in might have had something to do with his late grandfather, Al Santos, who passed away in January at 97.

"My grandfather collects the flags from the tournaments I win ... and he said, `Enough of these tour wins, I want a major,'" Mickelson recalled. "On that putt, Chris' ball was hanging on that left lip and when it got to the hole it fell off. My putt was hanging on that left lip ... and went in.

"I can't help but think he [his grandfather] had something to do with it. ... I can't help but think my grandfather nudged that in."

The victory, Mickelson's first in more than a year and worth $1,170,000, was celebrated by the fans here like none other since Jack Nicklaus' record sixth Masters title in 1986, which was won with a similarly breathtaking back-nine charge.

"I really don't know what to say other than to tell you how awesome it feels," said Mickelson, whose back-nine score was only one stroke higher than Nicklaus' record for a champion of 30. "I don't think any Masters will ever compare to the '86 Masters, but for me this one does."

When the ball dropped in, Mickelson hugged his longtime caddie, Jim McKay, and could be seen mouthing the words, "Oh, my God" over and over. He plucked the ball out of the cup, kissed it and then tossed it into the crowd.

As he walked back to the scoring cabin, the deafening roars ringing in his ears, Mickelson stopped to pick up each of his three young children, and kissed his wife, Amy, who was in tears.

It was an emotional moment for Mickelson, who recalled the late Payne Stewart telling him about the importance of family after Stewart beat Mickelson by a shot in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Amy Mickelson gave birth to their first child the day after the Open.

Stewart died in a plane crash four months later.

"As I was holding my kids, I thought of it, too," Mickelson said. "We both made a putt about the same length on the last hole to win by one. He was very prophetic about family. I did think about that as I was holding Amanda [his oldest daughter.]"

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