By Mike Blum
After weeks of unending hype about Tiger Woods’ return to golf at the Masters, it was deliciously ironic that the coveted green jacket went to Phil Mickelson.
By virtue of his serial philandering, Woods has sucked up almost all the media oxygen surrounding golf since Thanksgiving night last year. His return after a brief hiatus (he missed all of maybe five or six tournaments during that span of less than five months) was treated as one of the biggest stories in the history of sports.
For many media outlets covering the Masters, it was pretty much all Woods, all the time, with the other 95 players and the tournament itself reduced to a footnote. Fortunately, that did not apply to the televised coverage on ESPN and CBS, which obsessed over Woods as much as usual without delving into the seamy aspects of his private life which caused all the hubbub in the first place.
Once the tournament started, the focus was on golf, although many of those same media outlets still geared their coverage around Woods, who stayed close enough to the lead for the duration to keep the conversation about him confined to his performance as a player on the course, as opposed to his exploits elsewhere.
Woods finished each of the first two rounds of the Masters within two strokes of the lead, even managing to shoot his lowest ever opening day score (68) at Augusta National. He remained in third place after 54 holes, but began the final round four strokes off the lead of Lee Westwood, and three behind the resurgent Mickelson, who had suffered through a stretch of erratic, unsatisfactory play in his first seven starts of 2010.
As one particularly clueless cable talking ahead blabbered prior to the start of the fourth round, “all eyes are on Tiger.” That may have been true for the non-golf media, particularly those of the tabloid/entertainment variety, but for those who follow golf even when its No. 1 player isn’t on the cover of the National Enquirer or the subject of a report on TMZ, the man of the hour was the always entertaining Mickelson.
Mickelson’s career – especially in the majors – has been marked by as many memorable near-misses as exhilarating triumphs. Mickelson now has three Masters titles in the last seven years, but along with his trio of victories are four third place finishes in his career and five other showings of seventh or better.
Over the past 16 years, Mickelson has been a weekend contender in the Masters a staggering 14 times, but until 2003 had never broken 70 in the final round. He finally ended that dubious distinction in ’03 when he fired a 68 to finish two strokes out of the Mike Weir-Len Mattiace playoff, and went on to win the tournament two of the next three years, shooting 69 on Sunday each time, including his sensational back nine 31 to edge out Ernie Els in ’04.
The next time Mickelson was a serious contender on Sunday in Augusta was last year, when he matched the front nine record of 30 to erase a 6-stroke deficit. He provided more fireworks on the back nine, but a splashed tee shot on 12 and two misses on short putts left him with a 67 and fifth place finish, three out of the playoff.
Mickelson produced another 67 in the final round of the most recent Masters, but this one was a little different. No balls in the water. No bogeys. A relatively modest (by Mickelson standards) five birdies. But there were several Mickelson-ian pars, as he recovered from errant tee shots with excellent recoveries, followed by Mickelson’s short game magic that kept any bogeys from appearing on his scorecard.
After his victory, Mickelson cited the forgiving nature of Augusta National (at least off the tee) as one of the reasons he loves the course so much and why he has been such a consistent contender in the Masters over the years.
“I played really well and hit a lot of good shots, but I made a few loose swings like I tend to do. On 9, 10 and 11, I made three swings that weren’t great, and I was able to salvage par. Not every course gives you the opportunity to recover like that, and I feel when I play here I don’t have to play perfect.
“It’s why I feel so at ease here.”
Water is in play off the tee on only one of the 14 non-par 3s at Augusta National, and instead of out of bounds stakes, the course offers up parallel fairways to enable recovery after especially errant drives. For the most part, Mickelson drove the ball beautifully in his victory. But on the occasions when he strayed into the trees and surrounding pine straw, he was able to get back in play rather than being assessed a penalty stroke, and used his trusty short game to prevent any damage to his scorecard.
After 10 pars and a lone birdie, Mickelson was tied for the lead with K. J. Choi when he made his one and only putt of length on the day, a birdie on the treacherous 12th that was reminiscent of the one he made which started his 5-birdies-in-7-holes stretch that took down Els in ’04.
Mickelson followed with his epic 6-iron from the pine straw at 13, but in typical Mickelson fashion, missed the 4-foot eagle putt. Unlike last year, when he missed an eagle attempt of similar length at the 15th, blunting his final round comeback, Mickelson shrugged off the miss at 13. He responded with one perfectly played shot after another, concluding his superb final round effort with an icing-on-the-cake birdie at the 18th.
With three rounds of 67 and a hard fought second round 71 on the hardest scoring day of the week, Mickelson finished with a 16-under 272 total, a score bettered only three times in Masters history, none since the course was lengthened by almost 500 yards and a second cut of rough added.
Mickelson did most of his damage on the back nine, beginning with an eagle-birdie-birdie run on 13, 14 and 15 that turned an otherwise uneventful opening round into a 67. He did even better than that on Saturday, going eagle-eagle-birdie, almost following his hole-out on the 14th with another on the 15th, just missing what would have been the first trio of consecutive eagles in the history of competitive golf.
The victory was the 38th on the PGA Tour during Mickelson’s career and his fourth major. Eight of those wins have come in Georgia, and a repeat victory in the Tour Championship at East Lake later this year will give him a triple-triple in the Masters, Tour Championship and defunct BellSouth Classic.
One of Mickelson’s greatest efforts but most heartbreaking defeats came in the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Golf Athletic Club, where he shot the second lowest 72-hole score in tournament history, but was edged out by the record-setting effort of David Toms.
Mickelson will return to AAC for the 2011 PGA, but before then will try to rectify his career o-fer in the U.S. Open, which includes five runner-up finishes, four of which were heroic in nature. His recent win at Augusta puts to rest any questions about the lingering effect of his 72nd hole meltdown at Winged Foot in ’06, and with next month’s Open at Pebble Beach, where he has three career victories, he will be favorite among those with a working knowledge of the sport.
As for Woods, his response to a question about his immediate schedule was typically vague. When and where he will play next is anybody’s guess, but one thing that is a given is how easy things were for him at the Masters.
No tabloid media asking lurid questions that Woods may never answer but will likely hang over his head for some time. No over-served spectators making off-color remarks about his extra-marital escapades. A helpful Augusta National membership intervening to banish planes from displaying pithy messages that reminded people why Woods was absent from tournament golf since last November.
At times, it was hard to tell Woods had been MIA for almost five months. But at other times he showed obvious signs of competitive rust, mixing some typically brilliant shot-making with a rash of loose shots. He also conclusively displayed that the promise of a kindler, gentler Tiger was a PR gesture, as his short-fuse temper was lit on several occasions.
As for his legendary mental toughness, his Lanny Wadkins-like missed tap-in at 14 Sunday offered a hint that his meditation efforts may need some more work.
Woods still managed a tie for fourth, a finish in line with his results in Augusta since his last win there in 2005. With a few exceptions, Woods has established a pattern in recent years of coming close, but not all that close, in majors, and his recent Masters showing stuck to that, even with the massive hype surrounding his scandal-fueled absence.
The 2010 Masters had several other interesting story lines that deserve some mention.
Westwood made another serious run at a first major title, but again came up just short, due more to Mickelson’s exceptional play on Sunday rather than his own failures. He is the No. 4 player in the world for a reason.
Anthony Kim made a torrid late Sunday charge with three birdies and an eagle on holes 13 to 16, but had to settle for third place a week after winning in Houston over Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor, denying Taylor a last-minute Masters invite. It’s hard to imagine that a green jacket will not find its way into his closet at some point.
Choi played with Woods all four days and matched him shot-for-shot the entire way. He was tied for the lead as late as Amen Corner on Sunday, but his hopes ended in the back bunker at 13. For a while it looked like he might be the second straight Korean major champion, but could not quite match last year’s feat of countryman Y.E. Yang, who followed his PGA Championship victory with a tie for seventh in Augusta.
In recent years, the Masters and British Open have featured some stellar play by golfers either past or nearing the age of 50, and Augusta’s patrons received a double shot this year. Tom Watson stole the early headlines Thursday with a 67 and finished the tournament under par and in the top 20, his best finish in more than a decade.
Fred Couples may be 50, but his game hasn’t aged, bad back and all. His opening 66 was his best score ever in the tournament and good for the opening day lead. After struggling in the second round, he rebounded with scores of 68 and 70, the latter despite a crushing double bogey at the 12th. Couples was only two off the lead going to the back nine on Sunday, and fought back with three birdies on his final six holes to finish sixth.
Couples was one of many players who provided plenty of highlights to again bring the roars to life at Augusta National and make the 2010 Masters one that will remembered for what happened on the course, not the sideshow that preceded it.
Mickelson’s Sunday began with one of the oddest bad breaks witnessed in a major, as a rogue pollen stamen deflected his birdie attempt on the second hole.
But it ended with one of the most heartfelt hugs witnessed on live television, as he and wife Amy shared a real moment of unbridled emotion, a stark contrast to the sordid story line that threatened to overshadow an event that true golf fans have long recognized is greater than any one player.