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At Long Last, a First

Mickelson Earns Major Title With Victory at Augusta

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2004; Page D01

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 11 -- With one final 18-foot birdie putt that curled around the hole and dropped into the cup, Phil Mickelson ended years of frustration and silenced all those who doubted he had the ability to tone down his aggressive nature in the cauldron of the back nine in a final round of a major championship. On Easter Sunday at the 68th Masters, he proved his critics wrong with a magnificent display of poise under pressure and prevailed by a shot over Ernie Els, a three-time major champion also playing brilliantly down the stretch.

In his 47th major event, Mickelson finally fulfilled the promise of his already illustrious career with a run of five birdies on his final seven holes at Augusta National, becoming only the sixth player in history to win this tournament with a birdie putt on the 72nd hole, and the first to do it since Mark O'Meara in 1998. He finished with his third straight round of 69 after opening with a 72 Thursday, and ended with a 9-under-par total of 279 on a day when all manner of extraordinary shots were diving into the hole, evoking ear-splitting roars all over the course.

Mickelson Celebrates Victory
Mickelson Celebrates Victory
Phil Mickelson is joined by the gallery as he celebrates the 18-foot birdie putt that gave him his first major championship. "To have it be such a difficult journey to win my first major makes it even more special, sweeter," says Mickelson. (Dave Martin - AP)

Els was the source for many of them over his own spectacular round of 67, his lowest Sunday score in this event in his 11 appearances, for a 72-hole total of 280. He had every reason to think that 8 under would be good enough for his third major victory, or at worst, a spot in a sudden-death playoff.

South Korean K.J. Choi earned similar cheers by holing a 5-iron from the 11th fairway for an eagle that helped vault him into third place with a 69 -- 282 that included a 31 on the back nine. Irishman Padraig Harrington and American Kirk Triplett evoked more ground-shaking thunder by making holes-in-one 10 minutes apart at the 170-yard 16th hole, where only seven aces had ever been recorded in the history of the tournament.

"The noise was unbelievable," Els said afterward. "It's probably the loudest I've ever heard here. . . . It was great stuff."

It was even better than that for Mickelson, 33, who had won 22 times on the PGA Tour before Sunday and amassed $27 million in earnings. But the champion's green jacket was simply priceless. A huge crowd watched the outdoor ceremony and cheered lustily for a particularly popular champion. Mickelson, who finished third here the past three years, earned a winner's check of $1.17 million, but his victory Sunday was never about the money and only about erasing the terrible stigma of never having won a major title.

"I think having in the past 10 years come so close so many times . . . to have it be such a difficult journey to win my first major makes it even more special, sweeter," he said. "It is just awesome winning this tournament."

For Els, it was a huge disappointment. He started three shots behind when he teed off this overcast afternoon but opened a three-shot lead on Mickelson when he made his second eagle of the round at the 13th hole. Afterward, the hero of South African golf was also a most gracious runner-up in a tournament he yearns to win himself.

"I think Phil deserved this one," he said. "He won this one. He didn't lose it like some of the other ones. Full credit to him."

Mickelson was clearly the people's choice as he made his way around these lovely grounds, often followed by crowds eight and 10 deep who agonized when he made three front-nine bogeys, including a missed three-foot par putt at the third hole and a bunker shot at the fifth hole that stayed in the sand. When Els began to make his own run with a five-foot eagle putt at the 575-yard eighth hole, Mickelson trailed by a shot for the first time all day. And when Els made another eagle at the 13th, Mickelson trailed briefly by three shots.

But this was a different Mickelson from years past, a man who struggled through an unsatisfying 2003 season and made a decision over the Christmas holidays that it was about time to make some serious changes in his game. He worked with swing instructor Rick Smith to alter his natural ball flight from a draw to a slight fade, and made a conscious effort not to concern himself with being the longest hitter in the game.

Some of that less aggressive, thinking man's approach was very much in evidence on the 18th tee Sunday, when Mickelson, tied with Els up in the clubhouse and finished at 8 under, pulled out a 3-wood at the 465-yard hole instead of a driver for the critical tee shot through a narrow chute to an uphill green. He hit it exactly where he wanted down the middle, 303 yards up the hill and 162 yards from the flag. His second-shot 8-iron flew high and came to rest about 18 feet from the hole, evoking a roar from thousands all around.

And then he got a little lucky, as so many major championship winners do. His playing partner, Chris DiMarco, blasted out of a front greenside bunker and his ball came to rest about three inches behind Mickelson's ball. Both men smiled as they passed each other on the green, because each knew Mickelson would get a perfect read on the line of his own birdie putt. DiMarco missed his par attempt, but Mickelson dashed over to watch the ball take its final rolls toward the cup, and he said afterward, "I had a great look at that line."

He hardly hesitated getting over his own putt, using a familiar old bladed putter he put back in his bag three weeks ago at the Players Championship. His ball was purely struck and headed straight at the hole until the final roll caught the left edge and curled sweetly around as Mickelson's eyes expanded to saucers and thousands rose in the air to exult along with him. He raised his fists in the air, kissed his ball and hugged his longtime caddie, Jim McKay. Minutes later, he was lifting wife Amy off her feet and kissing his three children before entering the scoring hut to make it official.

While Mickelson was making his walk up the 18th hole, Els watched briefly, eating an apple at one point before heading over to the practice putting green in case a playoff would have to decide the final outcome. That's where he was when Mickelson rolled in that last 18-footer, and when Els heard yet another roar signaling Mickelson's birdie, he casually used his putter to flip a ball into the air and into his hands and dipped his head in some dismay at another lost opportunity.

Mickelson needed only 27 putts Sunday, the same number as Els. But he will never forget the 20-footer that dropped for a birdie at the 16th to tie Els at 8 under, and of course, that last stroke of genius at the 72nd hole. Mickelson said he also may have had some help on that winning putt from a higher authority.

He relayed a story about his late grandfather, Al Santos, who died in January, but had told him over Christmas "that this was going to be the year," Mickelson said.

"Chris's ball was hanging on the left lip, and when it got to the hole it just fell off. My putt was almost on the exact line; it was hanging on that left lip. But instead of falling off, it caught that lip and circled around and went in. I can't help but think that [my grandfather] may have had a little something to do with that."

But so did Phil Mickelson, finally a major champion after all these years.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company