SI Vault
Alan Shipnuck
April 19, 2004
With a stirring Sunday charge, a heady, steady Phil Mickelson won the Masters—and served notice that this long-awaited major victory may be the first of many
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April 19, 2004


With a stirring Sunday charge, a heady, steady Phil Mickelson won the Masters—and served notice that this long-awaited major victory may be the first of many

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A brutal 2003 compelled him to do some soul-searching. He had failed to win all year for only the second time in his career and plummeted to 15th in the World Ranking. He had slipped to 189th in driving accuracy. At year's end Mickelson took a hard look in the mirror. While the buffed Woods increasingly resembles an NFL safety, Mickelson had the body of a couch potato. Not anymore. Since December he has lost 15 pounds by going bunless at In-N-Out Burger and laying off his beloved doughnuts, as well as by working out six times a week with Sean Cochran, a former strength and conditioning coach for the San Diego Padres who accompanies him to every tournament on Mickelson's Gulfstream.

More important, Mickelson reshaped his swing. Around Christmas, Smith spent five 10-hour days working to quiet Mickelson's lower body and shorten his backswing when hitting his irons, leading to more balance and consistency. They also perfected a reliable fade, sacrificing a few yards for greater control. Mickelson looked like a different player while winning his season debut at the Hope, even (gasp) laying up on a watery par-5 down the stretch. (That he went on to three-putt for bogey was an irony even Mickelson could appreciate.)

Augusta National, though, loomed as the ultimate test. In the previous three Masters, Mickelson had made 60 birdies, while the respective champions combined for 58, but to win he would have to make fewer big numbers. Last week the course's dangerous par-5s were the battlefield where the war played out between the old and new Phil. When, instead of boldly firing at the flag on 13 on Thursday, he conservatively aimed 35 feet left, it was clear that Mickelson was playing a different game than in years past. And when you don't tempt the golf gods, you are rewarded. At 13 on Friday, Mickelson pulled his approach, and it rolled off the green toward Rae's Creek before stopping inches above the hazard, the most momentous Velcro job since Fred Couples's ball stayed up on 12 in 1992. Mickelson turned a would-be 6 into a 4, the key break of the tournament.

For this Masters, Mickelson throttled back in another way, abandoning his trademark flop shot on Augusta National's tight lies and using his putter from off the greens. This wasn't glamorous, but it got the job done. At the 18th on Saturday he got up and down from behind the green with a deft putt off a mound, preserving a bogeyless 69 that gave him his first 54-hole lead in a major.

Over the first three rounds Mickelson played the most controlled, disciplined golf of his career, hitting 73-6% of his fairways and leading the tournament in greens in regulation. Still, Sunday would be his most important round ever. That Woods, his nemesis, was in 20th place, at three over par, surely helped. "Well, it doesn't suck," Mickelson said, breaking up a loosey-goosey press conference.

However relaxed Mickelson seemed, you just knew he wouldn't make it easy on Sunday. Early on he came down with a case of the yips (missing a 3�-footer for par on 3) and then the fluffs (leaving a sand shot in a bunker on 5 for another bogey). Mickelson was three down to a charging Els when he reached the heart of Amen Corner.

Mickelson might have played Nicklaus's brand of percentage golf to get this far, but now it was time to get after it like Arnie. On the par-3 12th, the scariest little hole in golf, Mickelson attacked the flag, sticking an eight-iron to 12 feet for the birdie that began his comeback. At 13 he ripped a high fade around the corner and then rifled a seven-iron to 20 feet, setting up a two-putt birdie. He was one back, but only for a moment, as Els played a superb chip at the par-5 15th, capping a run in which he went six under in a nine-hole stretch.

After a perfect drive at 14 Mickelson and Mackay stood in the fairway chewing on club selection. Bones is the only caddie Mickelson has ever had. He is part of what Amy calls "our gang." She says, "We joke that Phil is the only player in golf history to have the same wife, caddie, agent and nanny his whole career." Standing 146 yards from the hole, Bones talked Mickelson out of a nine-iron and persuaded him to hit a hard pitching wedge. It stopped two inches from the cup for a gimme birdie. One down. "That was a very good idea," Mickelson said of the club Bones had pulled.

Mickelson was still one down when he arrived at the par-3 16th. The hole cost him dearly in 2001, when his hooked seven-iron put him above the hole, resulting in a three-putt that killed his chances. This time Mickelson trusted his high fade and fed an eight-iron off the slope to 15 feet "That one swing says more about Phil's development than any other," said Smith. When Mickelson buried the putt, he was even with Els, setting up the drama of the 72nd hole.

Long after the winning putt had dropped, there was a sense of disbelief that Mickelson had really done it. Wearing his new 43-long jacket, he said, "It was an amazing, amazing day, the fulfillment of all my dreams." Amy still couldn't stop dabbing her eyes, while Amanda was telling any adult within earshot, "Green is my new favorite color."

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