x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

'Lefty' Mickelson gets things right

To triumph amid concerns over the health of his wife puts the American among the greats.

Phil Mickelson hugged his wife, Amy, in an embrace that lasted more than half a minute. The couple have shared such congratulatory moments before, but not under these circumstances.
Phil Mickelson hugged his wife, Amy, in an embrace that lasted more than half a minute. The couple have shared such congratulatory moments before, but not under these circumstances.

The ease with which it all came together seemed to be everywhere around Phil Mickelson. The leaderboard showed he led the Masters by two shots. On the 18th green, he had a putt he has seen and struck countless times before, a little left-to-right breaker for a birdie he did not need. And in the clubhouse and the locker room at Augusta National, taking off their spikes and moving on, were most of the men - Tiger Woods among them - who charged at Mickelson on a sparkling Sunday afternoon, only to fall away.

But when that final putt dropped, and Mickelson pumped his fist in celebration of his third Masters title, the ease of it all melted away. At the side of the green, at a tournament for the first time in nearly a year, was Mickelson's wife, Amy. The hug they exchanged lasted more than half a minute. They have shared such congratulatory moments before, but not under these circumstances. "It's been an emotional year," Mickelson said.

At the tournament at which Woods made a much-ballyhooed return to golf after a sex scandal crushed his image - and showed, particularly on Sunday, that he is unlikely to change on the golf course - Mickelson shot a final-round 67 to beat playing partner Lee Westwood by three shots. He marked the win with the kind of signature shots that usually define the Masters, none better than an iron from the pine straw on the par-five 13th, and became the eighth man to win as many as three Masters.

Those kinds of statistics and moments would be how to define Mickelson's Masters victories in 2004 and 2006. But not now. This one will be defined by that hug with Amy at the side of the green, because last year she had breast cancer diagnosed, and Mickelson's life - in public and private - has changed since. "He's been through hard times just recently," Westwood said, "and he deserves a break or two."

The tournament, for a time, seemed to be all about Woods, who has not won here since 2005, his longest drought since he turned professional. But he came here in different circumstances, dealing with the fall-out from and scrutiny of his own behaviour. And though he said it did not affect his golf, he was erratic on Sunday, closing with an all-over-the-place 69 that put him tied for fourth. "It was a tough day today," Woods said. "Another terrible warm-up today. I didn't have it, and it was pretty evident."

As Woods drifted away, so, too, did other competitors who looked like they might stand up to Mickelson. KJ Choi made his first bogey on a birdie hole, the par-five 13th. He followed with a bogey at the 14th, and that put him three behind Mickelson - who still had birdie holes to play - and essentially out of it. The man who made the real charge on the back side was Anthony Kim, who began the day seven strokes behind Westwood, the third-round leader, and closed with a 65 that featured a birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie stretch from 13 through 16. But Kim could not continue that flurry, and he posted a 12-under 276.

It was not nearly good enough. In very atypical Mickelson fashion, he did not even truly threaten to come back to his competitors. He opened with seven straight pars. Even when he hit a wayward tee shot or two, he did not make a single bogey. And when he looked ready to give back the tournament with a what-is-he-thinking moment, he came through. On the par-five 13th, Mickelson held a one-shot lead over Choi. He yanked his drive right, into the pine needles. And he decided to rip a six-iron from 207 yards between some trees.

"The gap, it wasn't huge, but it was big enough for a ball to fit through," Mickelson said. So he ripped it. And it landed four feet from the pin. He somehow missed the eagle putt, but the tap-in for a birdie gave him a two-shot lead. "It's one of the few shots, really, that only Phil could pull off," said Westwood, who was behind another tree on the same hole. "I think most people would have just chipped that one out. But you know, that's what great players do."

Mickelson is now, without question, a great player - despite all the majors he has let slip away. Among his contemporaries, only Woods has more than four major championships. And more important: he did it with Amy at the side of the green. "This has been a very special day," Mickelson said. "To have Amy and my kids here, to share it with, I can't put it into words. ... To be able to share this kind of joy means a lot to us."

* The Washington Post