Leap of destiny
An oral history behind Mickelson's breakthrough Masters win
It is hard to believe that it has been a decade since Phil Mickelson took one giant step in his career and one small leap into Masters history. Time doesn’t lessen the lore, however. It only enhances it.
Mickelson had won plenty before and has won plenty since, including four more major championships, but just as in life nothing is perhaps ever quite as memorable as a first.
Already twice a runner-up in the U.S. Open -- and painfully so again later that year and three more times since -- Lefty had experienced a career’s worth of major heartache by the time he turned up at Augusta National in 2004.
Early in the week, though, there was a moment longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay recalled that gave a sense it might finally be Mickelson’s time. A few days and one joyous jump later, Mickelson was a major champion after an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole gave him a one-shot victory over Ernie Els.
As Mickelson returns to Augusta National with three Green Jackets hanging in the closet, he and his team recall getting that first one.
Phil Mickelson: The win confirmed to me that I was doing the right things and that my work was paying off. The work with (Dave Pelz) on a lot of different parts of my game convinced me it was the best way going forward. I had much more control over my distance and direction with my scoring clubs. I think if I had started working with Pelz earlier in my career, I’d have a few more majors now.
Jim Mackay (caddie): I always think back to, I think it was Friday, he was playing the 13th hole, the pin was back right and he hit a 4-iron that he pulled a little bit. It got on the green and it rolled down in the hazard. Total bummer. We walk down there and there was this little island of perfectly-mown grass in the middle of the water and our ball was standing right on it. He darn near chipped it in and made 4. As he and I talked later on after the week, from that point on, when you get that kind of an amazing break at a place like Augusta, you start to think, maybe this might be his week. That, and Ernie playing that amazing round on Sunday and (Phil) having to get it going.
Rick Smith (coach): His preparation prior to that week was so good it was almost like he knew was going to be in contention. Still to this day it’s the best he has ever swung a club. I’ll never forget the (Sunday) morning typical two-practice session, one early then right before he teed off. It was like throwing darts. It was magical -- the colors bursting, the sun, the calmness, the whole environment. He had total control of everything he was doing. It was all set up. There’s a time to not say a whole lot and I was watching to see if something was wrong. Everything was just right.
There’s the old cliché about the Masters not starting until the back nine on Sunday and the adage played out that way again. Els started the day 3 under and three back of co-leaders Mickelson and Chris DiMarco. Playing two groups in front of them, the big South African stumbled with two bogeys in his first five holes before bouncing back -- he eagled the par-5 eighth and 13th holes and added a birdie at 15 to get to 8 under and seemingly within reach of his own first Green Jacket. Mickelson turned in 38 but then turned it on, making five birdies over his final seven holes to close in 31. Among them, the one at the iconic 12th hole stood out.
Mackay: Ernie made eagle on 13, I think we were standing on 12 tee and as you know there are birdie roars and eagle roars. We knew that he’d made an eagle and Phil had a lot of work to do, so he felt like all of a sudden 12 was an aggressive play.
Mickelson: That hole has caused me some problems and I felt if I could get by the hole without damage, I had time to make a move.
Smith: The swing I really wanted to see as he got to 10, 11 and 12 was a swing that was a cut. The Sunday pin on 12 is back right and in previous years he’d sweep a hook in there. Frankly, it had cost him earlier Masters’. That shot had been a real problem. When I saw him hit that shot, a cut to about 12 feet, I said, ‘the tournament’s over.’ That’s the shot we worked really hard on. He started it right of the flag and just cut it back. I knew he was going to have some kind of back nine.
Mickelson: Walking to the green I knew if I could make the putt for birdie I’d be two back. And if I birdied 13 I’d be one back with five to play.
Mackay: He had the putt before and he’d missed it high and he’d missed it low. I know he said later on he felt sure he knew the break having had that putt several times before. The cool thing was, I think in ‘06 he went on to make that identical putt. His memory served him well there.
Smith: I’ll never forget how he responded (the last six holes). He went after every flag.
Mackay: Phil stood on 12 tee knowing he was going to have to make a bunch of birdies to win, and he did.
Another of those birdies came on the par-3 16th, where Mickelson hit his tee shot to 20 feet but was above the hole. Nevertheless, he poured in the putt to pull even with Els and stayed tied with him until the final hole.
Mackay: When he made the putt on 16 to tie, I was trying to be as low-key as I could. Phil came over and hit me in the rear end really hard with the grip of the putter and said, ‘Let’s make one more,’ and then he did to win by one, so it was cool.
Smith: It reminded me of Jack Nicklaus when he won in ’86. We got lost in it. The walk up 17 my heart was beating fast. We weren’t sure what Ernie was doing, but we heard a par clap not a birdie roar.
If there was something else working in Mickelson’s favor that afternoon it was that he was playing alongside a good friend in DiMarco, who faded with a final-round 76. But DiMarco would be a factor as Mickelson stared down a birdie attempt on the 18th.
Mackay: DiMarco hit it in the front bunker and could hit 1,000 balls out of the front bunker and not have a ball end anymore directly toward Phil’s coin than it did. It finished 3 or 4 inches behind Phil’s coin on the identical line.
Mickelson: DiMarco's ball broke to the left more than I thought. I saw every inch of his putt, I saw every inch of break, and I knew the line. My putt caught the lip, and instead of falling off, it circled around the cup and fell in. I can’t help but think my grandfather had something to do with that from above. That’s what I thought about right after the putt fell in.
Smith: I could see Ernie on the putting green to the right of 18 getting ready for a playoff. Then Phil drains it. He had accomplished his goal, his dream. I always knew when he did that the door was going to be wide open. To me, that was the most monumental year of his career. It really turned him around.
Mickelson: When you go through what I went through, it was such a tough journey, to be so close so many times, to see other putts fall to beat you, that when you finally get that first major it makes it more special. You bet it was nice not to ever have to hear all that stuff about being the best player never to win a major.
Mackay: I remember he said to me, ‘I did it.’ It was so loud when he made that putt. But I will tell you a cool story: Phil gets done, he gets whisked away and he does the media thing, the member thing, he does whatever he does. I don’t see him for 2-3 hours at least, but I’m in the parking lot to help him load up when he leaves. I left for a second to go to the restroom. It’s 9 or 10 p.m. and I walk into the parking lot where his car is and there’s Phil with three guys and he’s hugging them all. I’m thinking to myself, ‘If Phil’s giving a guy a hug, I’m going to know who these guys are, having worked for him so long.’ I didn’t. I think, ‘What in the world is this?’ They all leave and I ask Phil, ‘What’s that all about?’ As people know, Phil is a really big tipper. They were the guys from the lower locker room who were semi-despondent that they were losing him to the Champion's locker room. They were all kind of hugging him goodbye.
-- Sean Martin contributed.