By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; D01
AUGUSTA, GA. -- The way it came together, it all looked comfortable, easy, for Phil Mickelson. Early Sunday evening, the main leader board showed he held a two-shot advantage in the Masters. On the 18th green, he had a putt he's seen and struck countless times before, a little downhill breaker for a birdie he didn't need. And in the clubhouse and the parking lot at Augusta National, taking off their spikes and moving on, were most of the men -- Tiger Woods among them -- who charged at Mickelson on a sparkling afternoon, only to fall away.
But when that final putt dropped, and Mickelson pumped his fist in celebration of his third Masters title, the ease of it all melted away. Amy Mickelson, once a staple at such events, stood at the back of the green. When Phil found his wife, the embrace they shared lasted more than half a minute.
"Not much was said," Mickelson said.
What would you say? Until a year ago, golf and life were nearly interchangeable for the 39-year-old Mickelson. Adversity, for him, must have been a day when he was forced to carry his own clubs. Then, last spring, Amy had breast cancer diagnosed. Six weeks later, so did Mickelson's mother, Mary. Once, the wait for Mickelson's first major title, the 2004 Masters, had seemed frustrating and interminable. Not so much any more.
"He's been through hard times just recently," said Lee Westwood, the third-round leader and overall runner-up. "He deserves a break or two."
So the shot-by-shot particulars of this one -- a tournament at which Woods made a much-ballyhooed return to golf after a sex scandal crushed his image -- aren't as important as that moment afterward. Still, they are intriguing. Mickelson closed with a bogey-free 67, the lowest score among the final four groups, to finish at 16-under-par 272 and beat Westwood by three shots. He marked the victory with the kind of signature shots that usually define the Masters, none better than a laser from the pine straw on the par-5 13th, and he became the eighth man to win as many as three Masters.
"When I get here to Augusta, I get very relaxed and feel very comfortable here," Mickelson said. "I'm in love with this place, and it brings out the best in me."
Westwood, the 36-year-old Englishman, was a worthy adversary, and it would appear that someday he'll win one of these things. His finishes in the last three majors: third at the British Open last summer, when he missed the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff by a shot; third behind Y.E. Yang and Woods at the PGA Championship; and second here after a closing 71 in which he didn't do anything terribly wrong -- playing a bogey-free back nine.
"The closer I get to winning these major championships," Westwood said, "the more I want the next one to come around."
Woods, too, must feel the same way. His odyssey here was as much about pop culture as golf, but he departed Augusta National looking to be, very much, the same I-have-my-own-standards competitor he was before. His final-round 69 looked lost from the start -- until he holed out for eagle from the seventh fairway. That served as a spark, and birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 followed to put Woods three back of the lead at the turn. But the round slipped away in a series of rolled eyes and slumped shoulders on the back nine, not to mention a ghastly three-putt from six feet at 14.
"Made too many mistakes," Woods said, and he was speaking only about his golf, the only subject he broached after Monday's mea culpa news conference addressed his documented-to-the-last-detail infidelity.
Slowly, as Woods drifted away, so, too, did other competitors who looked like they might stand up to Mickelson. For most of Sunday, K.J. Choi seemed as likely to win as anyone, and he was tied with Mickelson after he birdied the 10th. But he made his first bogey on a birdie hole, the par-5 13th, an inexplicable result in which he roped his second shot through the green into a bunker, then took four to get down.
"It kind of got me mentally," Choi said, and he followed with a bogey at the 14th that put him three behind Mickelson, and essentially out of it.
The most significant charge came from Anthony Kim, the limber, gifted 24-year-old whose scariest statement to opposing players is a single birdie, because it could mean four more are on the way. As Choi, Mickelson and Westwood wrestled at the top, Kim played the 13th through 16th thusly: long two-putt birdie, six-foot birdie putt, 15 feet for eagle, and 18 feet up the hill for another birdie. Goodbye, 7 under and a march to irrelevance. Hello, 12 under, a shot back of the lead.
"I just felt like I had some momentum," Kim said.
But Mickelson wouldn't allow him to have it alone. A year ago, his memorable charge at the Masters on Sunday -- he shot 30 on the front side -- was halted at the 12th, where he put his tee shot in the water. This time, he took a 9-iron over the top of the flag to the back of the green, and made a 20-footer down the hill, an invigorating birdie.
But as much as that shot served to keep others at bay, the one that will be remembered came a hole later, at the par-5 13th, when his lead was still only one. He yanked his drive right, into the pine needles. He stood 207 yards from the pin. If he was to go for the green, he would need to lace a 6-iron in between two trees.
"I think most people would have just chipped that one out," Westwood said. Mickelson is not most people.
"The gap, it wasn't huge," Mickelson said, "but it was big enough for a ball to fit through."
So he ripped it. It landed four feet from the pin. He somehow missed the eagle putt, but the tap-in for birdie gave him a two-shot lead. The margin never grew smaller.
That left only some good, responsible play coming in, and the walk up 18, where Amy waited. "I wasn't sure if she was going to be there," Mickelson said, because, though the long-term prognosis is good, the medications she is on wear her out, and just traveling to Augusta from their California home was draining.
She was there, though, as were their three children. "To walk off the green and share that with her is very emotional for us," Mickelson said. So they hugged, and kept hugging. It was the easiest, most comfortable thing he did all week.