Sunday was a bizarre day in sports. Kobe Bryant, possibly protesting Phil Jackson’s criticism of his ball-hogging, jacked up only one shot in a blowout loss to the Kings. On a star-studded Yankee team worth $183 million, Bubba Crosby emerged as the team’s dominant player, hitting a three-run homer and demonstrating that he is the only Yankee who knows how to play defense. And yes, “The Best Player Never to Have Won a Major” finally broke through in the best Masters finish in recent memory.
Coming into Sunday’s final round, I actually felt good about Mickelson’s chances to finally win one. Tiger Woods was nine shots off the pace and essentially out of the tournament. Mickelson looked relaxed and steady throughout the week, and he entered Sunday tied for the lead with Chris DiMarco, two shots ahead of the field. No offense, but I didn’t see Chris DiMarco winning the Masters, especially after he began to unravel early in his round. Mickelson looked like he was in good shape — for about an hour.
On the sixth hole, I decided Mickelson was headed for yet another major championship choke. Having already dropped a shot, Mickelson mishit his chip from the bunker and watched his ball roll back into the sand. All of a sudden, the sharks saw blood in the water.
On cue, some of the biggest names in golf started to make their moves. Fred Couples, Davis Love III, and Vijay Singh were suddenly in the mix. Sergio Garcia was in the process of going eight under par over his final 12 holes. And then Ernie Els connected with an eagle on the 8th hole to take the lead only moments after Mickelson’s miscue.
The field knew its competition. When Tiger Woods won consecutive Masters titles in 2001-2002, he was never challenged on Sunday. In 2001, Phil Mickelson and David Duval were both within striking distance, but neither could connect on a big putt to pressure Woods. In 2002, Woods only shot a one-under 71 in the final round, but many of the world’s top players who were in contention — Retief Goosen (74), Singh (76), Els (73), and Garcia (75) — memorably collapsed and allowed Woods to cruise to his third Green Jacket.
But, Phil Mickelson is not Tiger Woods. (Who is?) While Woods has won eight majors, Mickelson was sitting on 0-for-42 with a history of close calls and heartbreak: three consecutive third-place finishes at Augusta. In 2002, Mickelson finished second to Woods at the U.S. Open, even as the crowd sang to him on his 32nd birthday. And then, there are the really painful losses.
In the 1999 U.S. Open, Mickelson just missed his birdie putt on the 72nd green, only to watch Payne Stewart nail a miraculous 15-footer to win by a single stroke. At least then Mickelson had the consolation prize of a newly born daughter to welcome him home.
In 2001, defeat was just as devastating. In a stunning parallel to the ’99 Open, Mickelson missed his birdie on the last hole by about two inches, before David Toms connected on a 12-foot par putt to seal the victory.
With the field charging Sunday, I was sure Mickelson was about to choke, once again. Each time he stepped over the ball, it seemed that the crowd roared, and Mickelson knew one of his competitors had executed a sensational shot. Playing partners K.J. Choi and Els caused much of the noise. Choi’s approach on the 11th rolled right into the hole, only the third eagle ever on No. 11. On the 13th, Els’s eagle putt found the bottom of the cup and he moved to seven under, three shots ahead of Mickelson. It was all slipping away.
And then, facing the burden of pressure from past failures as well as some of the world’s best players, Mickelson finally came through in the clutch. Knowing that Els had eagled 13, Mickelson took gutsy aim at the 12th pin and made birdie on the difficult par-3. He never looked back. Mickelson birdied five of the final seven holes.
When he walked onto the 72nd green, Mickelson was in familiar territory — another major championship was resting on his putter. But this time, Mickelson exorcised his last hole demons. He nailed the 18-foot birdie dagger to edge Els, who played a flawless round of 67, by a single stroke.
There’s something funny about professional golf. In other sports, there are notable stars who’ve never taken home a title. Barry Bonds says that all he wants is a World Series ring. Karl Malone probably gave up his opportunity to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record just for the chance to win a championship with the Lakers. But, unless you’re Patrick Ewing, a franchise player in team sports doesn’t receive as much criticism for failing to bring home a title. Even in a format more similar to golf, like tennis, it seems that majors are not a prerequisite for success.
Not so in golf. For better or worse, it doesn’t matter how well you play, you’re nothing until you win a major. Really, all it takes is one. Remember David Duval? He used to be the best player without a major until he passed the mantle to Mickelson by winning the 2001 British Open. Sure, he’s dropped off the face of the earth since then, but he has his major.
Mickelson will no longer face the same scrutiny when he finds himself in major contention. He put to bed all the doubts in incredible fashion, with a brilliant back nine flourish that legitimized his career.
Now we can start complaining about Sergio Garcia.