Phil Mickelson didn't win the Masters, but his scrappy third-place finish left little doubt that one day he will. Although he wasn't able to mount a big charge on Sunday, the boy wonder played like a grizzled veteran down the stretch. "It's a real heartbreaker, because I put myself in a position to win and didn't take advantage of it," says the 25-year-old Mickelson, who wound up a stroke behind Greg Norman. "But what I'm most proud of is that I stayed patient and played smart all four days."
Mickelson opened the tournament with a dazzling 65, the lowest score by a lefty in Masters history. Just as impressive was his gritty play over the next three rounds, when he didn't have his best fastball. On his way to a 73-72-72 finish, he prudently picked which pins to fire at and swallowed hard and played for par, sometimes even bogey, when he had to. Cautious choices kept Mickelson from double bogey or worse all week. Were it not for some hiccups by his usually trusty putter—on Sunday he left putts short and bogeyed both the 7th and 8th holes—Mickelson might be celebrating more than a moral victory. "It's cool to have had the opportunity," says Mickelson, who tied for fourth at the 1995 U.S. Open. "If I'm there enough, odds are one of these times it has to happen for me."
This was Mickelson's fourth try at Augusta. He has improved every time out, going from 46th to 34th to tied for seventh and now to third. There seems to be a pattern here. "I think about this tournament quite often," Mickelson said after the final round. "Everything that I've worked on, every change that I've made, every thought process I've worked on is geared to this tournament." Mickelson switched to a new titanium driver last month so he could hit the ball lower, the better to take advantage of Augusta's hard, fast fairways. He has also worked to flatten his swing, which reduces the backspin on his ball and allows him to place his approaches more precisely, the key to success at the Masters.
Of course, part of Mickelson's appeal is that he hits the kind of shots that can't be taught. During the third round he pulled off a couple of doozies. Lost in the woods after his drive on the par-5 2nd hole, Mickelson turned around his four-iron and took a swing righthanded, successfully punching out of trouble on his way to a par. Stymied again by trees on the 9th, he opened the face on his driver and hit a low, screaming slice that snaked its way for 180 yards before settling 12 feet from the hole.
Uh, Phil, did you hesitate at all before trying such risky shots?
"Of course not," he says, somewhat miffed at the question. "That was the only play."
With the chutzpah to match his phenomenal talent, and the continuing refinement and maturation of his game, Mickelson is as close to a sure thing in the future as Augusta will allow. He knows this too and is looking forward to his time.
"Have a good evening," the always courteous Mickelson said as he was taking leave from reporters on Sunday night. "I'll see you next year."