SI Vault
April 04, 2011
Yes it's a cliché, but it's also the truth: Many times the Masters truly starts at the 10th tee on Sunday. So which Masters winner has had the best back nine ever? In an attempt to answer that question, we've dissected two of the finest closing efforts by a champion—the mythic dash by 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus to his record 18th and last major championship, in 1986, and the sizzling comeback by Phil Mickelson for his first major title, on a newly lengthened Augusta National course, in 2004.
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April 04, 2011

Jack Versus Phil

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3 18-foot birdie putt


[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

*for approach shots on greens hit in regulation


Mickelson played a cleaner nine than Nicklaus, with five birdies and four pars. Phil also hit more greens in regulation and put his approaches much closer to the hole. But the most impressive factor in Phil's favor is how, after finishing second or third eight times in previous majors, he closed out his round to win his first. Under the tremendous pressure of knowing he needed a birdie at the last to beat Ernie Els, who had finished two groups ahead, Mickelson conjured one, leaping into the air with his arms and legs outstretched the moment after sinking the 18-foot winner.

Nicklaus's play was equally brilliant. Although a bogey at 12 tarnished his card, he countered that with an eagle at 15 and also had five birdies. Nicklaus wins the degree-of-difficulty conversation. The longest club Mickelson had into a green was a six-iron (including on the two par-5s), while Nicklaus's approach shots included a three-iron (13th hole), two four-irons (10 and 15) and a five-iron (16). But the case for Nicklaus rests on these three facts: Mickelson was only a shot behind at the turn, while Nicklaus trailed by five; Nicklaus, at 46, was past his prime, while Mickelson was 33; and, most critical, Nicklaus's back nine score of 30 was a stroke lower than Mickelson's 31.

All hail King Jack, the Masters winner with the best final nine.

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