The ball was nestled in pine straw, just a few feet from the base of a tree. Once again, a wayward drive put Phil Mickelson in a tight spot. This time, it was the par-5 13th hole in the final round at Augusta National.
Mickelson was leading by two, and caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay was trying to talk some sense into him. They were 207 yards from the hole. The proper play was to lay up short of Rae’s Creek, then use Lefty’s magical short game to try for birdie from there.
But since when did Mickelson take the easy way out?
He wanted the 6-iron. He was going for it.
“The object of golf is not just to win. It is to play like a gentleman, and win.”
Golf fans around the world collectively held their breath. Mickelson’s high-risk, gambling style had produced historic results over the years, but with it some spectacular failures. Who could forget the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot? Mickelson stood on the final hole with a one-shot lead, on the verge of winning his third consecutive major title. He made the aggressive choice, hitting driver off the tee. The shot spun into the left rough. He made things even worse on his second shot when he tried to go for the green through a thick patch of trees.
After losing the tournament, a despondent Mickelson famously said, “I am such an idiot.”
That moment was far removed from his college days, when it seemed a matter of when, not if Mickelson would take his rightful place atop the golf world.
The San Diego native had dominated the college ranks at Arizona State, earning All-America honors four times and matching a Jack Nicklaus feat in 1990 by winning the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA championship in the same year. He won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as a college junior – becoming the second amateur since 1954 to win a PGA TOUR event.
Then the fairytale ride took some wild, unexpected turns. Although he had amassed 22 wins in his first 12 years on TOUR, Mickelson was a staggering 0 for 46 in majors.
At the 2004 Masters, Mickelson finally conquered the demons. He drained an 18-foot putt on the 18th to win his first major. His joyous leap as the gallery erupted has become one of the tournament’s iconic images.
He followed that with the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, where, in his signature style, he nearly gave the tournament away before making birdie on the 72nd hole to win it.
At the 2008 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, Mickelson carried five wedges in his bag and used each one on his way to a one-shot victory.
Mickelson picked up his second Green Jacket in 2006, but this time he did it in style. At one point in the final round, he was in a five-way tie for first. But by the 16th hole, Mickelson was up by four shots and was able to bask in the crowd’s applause as he walked up the final fairway.
Four years and no major titles later, the whispers returned. Could he still do it? No one really knew.
So there he was again, in the trees, the glory of a third Green Jacket on the line, with another major decision. But was there ever a doubt? Adoring fans all over the world call him Phil the Thrill for a reason. As he stepped to the shot, CBS commentator and World Golf Hall of Fame member Sir Nick Faldo could only muster, “Oh my goodness.”
When the shot cleared the bank of Rae’s Creek by mere inches and settled three feet from the hole, the roar shook the pines at Augusta. “The greatest shot of his life!” Faldo exclaimed.
Mickelson went on to win his third Green Jacket. He became just the eighth player in history to have three or more Masters wins.
All majors are special, but this one had even greater significance for the Mickelson family. His wife Amy was diagnosed the year before with breast cancer. That she was even in the gallery with the family was a victory – it was the first tournament Amy had the strength to attend since she began treatment.
As Phil and Amy embraced afterward, the tears could have filled Rae’s Creek.
In 2012, Mickelson earned his 40th career PGA TOUR title, and he continues his ascent into the pantheon of golf’s all-time greats.
His legacy, however, may be in the special bond he has made with golf fans. Many have called him the Arnold Palmer of his generation.
When Mickelson won his first Masters title, Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck attempted to explain Lefty’s impact: “As a phenom back in 1991, Mickelson was saddled with the tag of the Next Nicklaus, but he has always had a lot more in common with Palmer. Both have made an intensely personal connection with fans, thanks to an agreeable, approachable manner and a go-for-broke style. They have also been defined as much by their shattering defeats as by their many triumphs.”