Finally, It's Phil; Mickelson's Last Birdie Earns His First Major Title

Article excerpt

Byline: Barker Davis, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The major weight on Phil Mickelson's shoulders now reads 43-long.

The golf world always figured Mickelson eventually would win a major. But nobody could have predicted he would play the hero's role in one of the game's all-time grandest productions.

Concluding a back-nine duel for the ages, Lefty righted his resume with one brilliant 72nd-hole lightning bolt at Augusta National yesterday, rattling home a sliding, 20-foot birdie putt to clinch the 68th Masters and his long-awaited first major by one stroke over Ernie Els.

"It's just a little surreal. I just can't believe that it's finally happened," said Mickelson, finally a member of golf's most exclusive club after a decade of near-miss miseries. "To shoot 31 on the back nine to win by one shot is something I'll look back on forever. I'll remember this day forever."

So will the rest of the golf world.

Mickelson, who finished at 9 under (279), didn't blow out the field at Augusta National. And he didn't fall backward into his first major title. Nope, all Lefty did yesterday was swap shots with the most daunting player of his generation not named Tiger and rip the green jacket from his grasp on the final hole of the most prestigious layout on the planet.

"I played as good as I could. What more could I do, you know?" asked Els, the three-time major champion still seemingly shocked by Mickelson's relentless pursuit. "Phil just beat me. That's how it goes. He made some great shots coming down the stretch, and he deserved this one. ... Man, that was some good golf."

How good? After struggling around the front nine in 38 strokes, Mickelson closed with a 31 on the most famous loop in golf. That brilliance was just one stroke shy of the record-setting back-nine performances by winners Gary Player (1978) and Jack Nicklaus (1986). But Player and Nicklaus forged their charges against primarily fading fields. Mickelson's run came with Els burning up the layout in front of him.

On virtually any other day, Els' final-round 67, which included two eagles (Nos. 8 and 13) and a back-nine 33, would have been enough to put him one PGA from a career Grand Slam. But this was hardly a typical major Sunday, even by the lofty standards associated with Bobby Jones' 7,290-yard, par-72 dramachine. This was a special Sunday.

"I don't think any Masters will ever compare to the '86 Masters, but for me, this one does," said Mickelson, referring to Nicklaus' legendary charge to victory at the age of 46.

Though yesterday's subjects might not compare to the Golden Bear, their golf certainly did.

The opening blow in the eventual Mickelson/Els duel was struck by the sweet-swinging South African on No. 8. The 34-year-old Els laced a 3-iron from 223 yards onto the front edge of the green and sounded his charge by coasting home the resulting 6-foot eagle putt to surge to 5 under. The salvo gave Els a one-stroke edge on Mickelson, who was struggling two pairings behind at 2 over on the day. …