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Masterful Mickelson
Neither the cheque for more than $1 million nor the departure from that elite group comprising 'the best player never to have won a Major' would have preoccupied Phil Mickelson last weekend. Notching up his 18th top-10 finish in the Majors without a victory may have slurped about in his grey matter from time to time. But it was most probably the thought of donning that coveted green jacket and having access to the exclusive upper locker room at the Augusta National Golf Club at Augusta that focused Phil Mickelson over an 18-foot putt on the last green to take the 2004 Masters title.

As he is the epitome of the All-American boy-next-door, the Masters crowd could not have been better rewarded. They may have relished a winner emerging from the Couples/Love pairing but it is even doubtful if they would have been more delighted if Arnold Palmer had won with his swan song appearance. Mickelson is loved in the States in the way that apple pie is loved. It isn't exactly a passionate love, but it is devotional and full of respect for a really nice lad who, but for Tiger Woods, might have been a wonder. Phil lived up to his image of 'going for it' and, on this occasion at least he went for it, pulled off some marvellous shots to win the jacket in a year that will long be remembered. Whether Phil will long be remembered is another thing altogether.

Golf is in an interesting phase of its evolution. Left-handers are rare in the higher echelons of the game yet this is the second successive Masters victory by a left-hander and it may well be the last for a very long time. In the history of this event there have been seven holes-in-one at the 16th, yet in the space of 10 minutes we saw two identical at the same hole. This is all phenomenal stuff but what is equally fantastic is that Mickelson takes the run of first time Major winners to six in a row. Mickelson may be more of a principal figure in the game than Weir, Furyk, Curtis or Micheel but, like Montgomerie, he had all of the characteristics of the bridesmaid who was never really likely to be a bride. First time Major winners just don't come along as frequently as they have of late and one wonders if, in the toughening up of courses, the aspect of lottery is playing the principal part.

Out of the fourth round at Augusta this year a new and altogether more mature and sensible Mickelson emerged to dispel the notion that he is not simply a pretty face. It took more mental stamina to keep it all together over the closing holes than many imagined he had. It took extraordinary composure to address the ball on the 18th green for two putts to tie Els and force a play-off. That he holed the putt to win reflects iron in the soul and a mental lens of diamond to focus on it.

Mickelson put his years of experience to best use and got the most out of it. By his standards he played within himself and, although he took his usual bold risks, he brought off his shots and holed his putts. Over the four rounds he forfeited the spectacular for the consistent - and it is consistency that wins tournaments.

The fact that the Augusta course has been lengthened and toughened is reflected in Mickelson's nine under par winning total. The fact that his 71, 69, 69, 69 was the most consistent scoring in the field says it all. Contrast Mickelson's card with that of Justin Rose, 67, 71, 81, 71, and the point is clear. Rose's 67 was as superb as his 81 was awful.

The challenge of Augusta was always on the greens. The greens remain the challenge but lengthening six particular holes has brought another dimension to it and, although the onus remains essentially on the putting touch, there is a new premium on the drive. Mickelson and Els were clearly beneficiaries with respect to the lengthening, as was Choi, Garcia, Rose, Singh and Casey, all 300 plus yard drivers. But a knowledge of the Augusta greens, and in particular where to land the ball relative to the hole on them, is probably most significant. Mickelson has a well-documented putting touch and clearly knows the Augusta greens and how they mischievously change over the four days.

Although Mickelson played with astonishing consistency, it is doubtful if anyone was more surprised than he was to find himself in the final pairing on Sunday. This was his first final pairing in the last round of a major tournament in 46 prior starts - only Montgomerie with 51 starts had played more with the same absence of success. What is probably more significant is that by the time Mickelson teed up for his last round, Tiger Woods was almost finishing his.

Mickelson, more than most, must be appreciative of Woods' continuing lapse of form. He and the Tiger may have kissed and made up after their well recorded spat, but their animosity remains real and there is little doubt that Woods considers Mickelson to be something of a big girl's blouse. It is also clear that Mickelson and many others, particularly the golfing press, are deriving some satisfaction in Woods' problems on the tee. But in case Phil and the boys have concluded that the dark shadow of Woods is no longer threatening every event, they should reflect on the fact that when Jack Nicklaus was in his 28th year, about the same age as Woods is now, he slumped to 12 consecutive majors without a win. Jack came back in a big way and so will the Tiger.

It may well be Mickelson's masterful play at Augusta that rouses the Tiger from his torpor.

©    13 - APRIL 2004

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