With some serious fire power lurking on the leaderboard, Phil Mickelson made it look awfully easy Sunday, winning the Masters by two strokes with a final round 69. Mickelson collected his second green jacket with a practically flawless round of golf and set himself up as the official challenger to the reign of Tiger Woods.
Due to a long rain delay on Saturday, Mickelson had to finish 13 holes of his third round on Sunday morning. When the final round began, he held the lead by a stroke, and the best players in the world were well within striking distance. One stroke behind him was former Masters winner, and fellow fan favorite, Fred Couples. Second round leader Chad Campbell was also just a stroke away. Two strokes back sat four-time Masters winner, and the number one player in the world, Tiger Woods. Former Masters winner, and the second best player in the world, Vijay Singh, was also two strokes off the lead. Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen was three strokes back. It is hard to imagine a stronger leaderboard in a major on Sunday. The question was, could Phil be patient and avoid mistakes?
“Lefty” answered that question with a resounding yes. He played absolutely flawless golf, going bogey-free until the last hole (when it no longer mattered). Nothing was forced–he waited for his moments and made clutch putt after clutch putt. After he birdied 7 and 8, regaining the lead, he never looked back. With birdies on the two par fives on the back nine, he suddenly held a four-shot advantage. It was almost boring he was so smooth.
No one seemed able to challenge him–although two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal made a magnificent run. After an eagle on the 15th, it looked as if he would post a serious number; then he’d have to wait and see what those behind him could do. But a bogey on 16 drained his momentum. He posted a 66–the low round of the tournament–but that ended up being good enough only for a tie for third.
A disappointed Tiger Woods can only think about what might have been. He was hitting the ball very well, but looked lost on the greens with seven three putts in the tournament. Sunday was no different. After bogies on 6 and 11, it looked like he’d be limping home. But Tiger being Tiger, he gave it one last run. He had legitimate eagle opportunities on 13 and 15, but missed them both. When his eagle putt lipped out on 13, his pain and frustration was visible. No doubt he badly wanted to win this one for his ailing father, and those eagle putts represented his best chance. Instead of putting pressure on Mickelson, Tiger felt the tournament slip away. A bogie on 17–another three putt–confirmed it. But he fought the whole way and birdied the 18th to join Olazabal in third place.
Tiger’s playing partner, South African Tim Clark, hung around all day, chipping in from the bunker on 18 to claim second place. Fellow South African Retief Goosen had three birdies on the back nine to join the growing third place group at four under–a group that Chad Campbell joined when he sunk his birdie putt on 18. It was too little too late, however, for all of these high-powered players. They played good rounds, but it takes a great one to win the Masters.
The person with the best view of Mickelson’s flawless play had the best chance to beat him. Forty-six-year-old Fred Couples hit the ball better than anyone on the course, but like Tiger, he couldn’t get it done with the flat stick. Despite beautiful ball striking, he missed numerous short birdie attempts, as he watched Mickelson glide along and then pull away. Couples’s putt for par on 11 lipped out for a three-putt bogey. On 14, his birdie try also lipped out, and he missed the putt coming back. It just wasn’t his day.
Instead, the day belonged to his friend and playing partner who beamed all round long, savoring every moment. When the golf was done with and the victory complete, a happy Mickelson fell into the arms of his wife and daughters, probably feeling like one of the luckiest men on the planet.
Just a few years ago, Mickelson had a huge monkey on his back as the “best player without a major.” He was the exciting but unstable player who just couldn’t get it done on the highest stage. Having won consecutive majors, two out of the last three Masters, and a third of the last nine majors, it is safe to say he has put all that behind him.
It looks as if we finally have our official rival to Tiger Woods, someone to stand in the way of his pursuit of Nicklaus’s record 18 Grand Slam victories–heady stuff, but fair enough given Mickelson’s accomplishments. After all, between the two of them, Tiger and Mickelson have won five of the last nine majors. No one else has more than one. This is exactly what golf fans have been waiting for, a real Mickelson-Woods battle for number one. Whether that emerges in the coming months remains to be seen. But meanwhile, Mickelson can savor having beaten the world’s best on the world’s most beloved course.