Phil Mickelson did not win the 74th Masters with all-world par saves on the 9th and 10th holes on Sunday or his cold-blooded birdie on the terrifying 12th, or even with the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me six-iron off the pine straw, out of the trees, over the creek and onto the 13th green. No, the key to Mickelson's third Masters victory came two days before the tournament began, when his wife, Amy, decided she was well enough to travel to Augusta. "I wanted this week to be all about Phil," Amy told SI on Sunday evening, her first public comments since being diagnosed with breast cancer last May. "I didn't want to put him in a compromising position—does he hit balls or take care of me because I'm not feeling well?"
During her battle with cancer, Amy has never been a burden to her college sweetheart, just an inspiration. But her aggressive treatments have left her too weakened to travel, and golf's most-high-profile family man has often looked lost without his wife and kids along for the adventure on the road. Mickelson was simply going through the motions at his first seven tournaments this year, finishing no better than eighth. But everything changed once Amy and the three kids touched down in Augusta. "He has a different energy, a different excitement," Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, said last Thursday. "He's playing for something bigger than himself." Mickelson made birdies by day and held court at night over lively family dinners that included his parents and in-laws. (His mother, Mary, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, is doing so well that she was able to walk hilly Augusta National for nine holes on Friday and Sunday.) With extra babysitters on hand, Mickelson even sneaked off on Friday morning to a coffee shop to play chess with daughter Sophia before his afternoon tee time. So buoyant was Mickelson when he showed up to work that his longtime caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay began referring to Augusta National as "Phil's playground." On the eve of what will go down as his greatest victory, Mickelson didn't have time to be nervous because he stayed up late on Saturday awaiting the X-ray results after elder daughter Amanda injured her wrist while roller-skating. (She suffered a hairline fracture.) "I am so proud of Phil and how he has handled it all," his dad, Phil Sr., said last week. "To be the father that he is, I couldn't be more proud."
The built-up emotion of the week—and the last 11 months—finally poured out on Sunday as the entire Mickelson tribe gathered behind the 18th green. Amy had been resting in front of a TV at a rented house, fighting back tears beginning when her hubby was on the 12th hole. She couldn't stand to miss out on the fun, so she journeyed to the course to surprise Phil, standing discreetly a few paces behind the green. Both Phil and Mackay spotted her as they approached the final green. Mackay and his wife, Jennifer, are very close to Amy, and they traveled to Houston last summer to be by her bedside before and after surgery. Yet Bones refused to make eye contact with Amy behind the green. "I really didn't want to look up, because I knew I was going to get choked up if I saw her," he said. Imagine how Phil felt. He rolled in one final birdie putt, an exclamation point on a bogeyless 67 and a four-round total of 16-under 272 that has been bettered only three times in tournament history. Then slowly he made his way to his wife. The Masters has a long history of freighted hugs, but the Mickelsons' embrace was almost cinematic in its sweetness. "I pretty much turned into a puddle," said Mackay. Nearby, Harmon—a gruff, profane man's man—was bawling like a schoolgirl. "I've never been this emotional when any of my guys have won," he said. "This was special. They're special people."
Phil has had so much practice being stoic that he was the only one who kept it together, his voice cracking only slightly during the green jacket ceremony when he said, "We've been through a lot this year. It means a lot to share some joy together."
This deeply personal triumph also had profound meaning for Mickelson's place in the game, elevating him from a mere superstar into one of golf's alltime greats. His 38th career victory pushed him to 11th on the career list, but of greater import, only the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have won more green jackets. Throw in his 2005 PGA Championship victory, and Mickelson is the only player to have won four major championships since Woods turned pro in late 1996, ending any lingering debate as to who is the era's second-best player. (Sorry, Vijay and Ernie.)
With Mickelson's feel-good victory playing out against the backdrop of Woods's very public marital woes, this Masters inevitably turned into a morality play in the pines. For Woods, the run-up to his first tournament in five months featured ritualistic, day-by-day humiliations. He arrived in Augusta just as Vanity Fair released a salacious story about his serial infidelities, complete with a photo gallery of buxom bimbos who claim to have been his paramours. On Monday, Woods endured his first Q and A with the golf press since the scandal broke, and during the 34-minute session he fielded—and sort of answered—endless questions about his mysterious late-night car crash, the state of his marriage and various other nongolf topics. On Wednesday the National Enquirer leaked details of an alleged tryst involving one of Woods's Florida neighbors.
Masters officials were none too pleased to have their august tournament sucked into the tawdry melodrama, and on Wednesday chairman Billy Payne felt obliged to officially register the club's disdain. "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here: It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids," Payne scolded during the annual chairman's press conference.
When Woods's 1:42 p.m. first-round tee time mercifully arrived, there was a funny feeling among the dogwoods. Idling by the opening tee box, the fans collectively seemed a little jittery and a tad confused. Do we cheer? Boo? Or somehow reserve judgment? Woods's short walk from the clubhouse to the practice green and then to the 1st tee added to the mixed feelings; instead of a humble return, the walk looked like a Secret Service procession as he was flanked by a dozen grim-faced goons who acted as if their job was to protect a head of state from whizzing bullets, not a mere golfer who was in danger of being hit by nothing more than a few stray wisecracks. But Woods's private army had neglected to clear the airspace above Augusta National. With a nod to Woods's born-again Buddhism, a prop plane appeared towing a banner that read TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM? (POINT AFTER, page 76). This was an unheard-of breach of the Masters' meticulously artificial tranquillity. Unlike the thousands of fans around him who were pointing skyward and laughing, Woods, ever the contrarian, later claimed not to have noticed the plane, though pictures of him looking in the air suggested otherwise.
He began his comeback with a perfect drive punctuated by his familiar cocky twirl of the club. But there was something different about Woods on this day, at least for a little while. He has always played in a bubble, distant and aloof, but as Tiger strolled down the 1st fairway, he made eye contact with fans who were 10-deep along the ropes, smiling and mouthing thank-yous. (In short, he acted like Mickelson.) Woods gradually got his game face on, and by the time he poured in a six-foot birdie putt on the 3rd hole, it felt like just another spin around Augusta, albeit in fewer strokes. Taking advantage of a benign setup, Woods shot a 68 that was his lowest first-round score at the Masters and also the first time he had made two eagles on the same day at Augusta National.
As it became clear that Woods's myriad skills were undiminished, the gallery found its voice, cheering for him lustily. This was either the ultimate example of the redemptive power of sport or merely the latest evidence of how self-deluding people can be in today's cult of personality.