AUGUSTA, Ga. — It took 12 sometimes excruciating years after turning pro before Phil Mickelson broke through to win his first major. It hardly seems like another decade has flown past with all the accomplishments he’s piled up since.
“A lot’s happened in those 10 years,” Mickelson said as he prepares for the 10th anniversary of his 2004 Masters Tournament victory. “It doesn’t seem so long ago because I have such vivid memories of the final round. I think any time you win at Augusta you’re going to have vivid memories, but it doesn’t seem like 10 years.”
Mickelson had 22 career PGA Tour victories before coming to Augusta National in 2004 on the back of his first winless season on tour. With 17 top-10 major finishes, he was the undisputed “greatest player to never win a major” and a lightning rod for critics who said his aggressiveness would keep costing him on the biggest stages while Tiger Woods was swallowing majors by the handful.
“When you look back on other players you throw that same label on, if you will, he had extra pressure on him,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie and friend. “Of course he had that and the burden of not having won any of them yet. It was tough because you come out there with a lot of expectations and you play well in a couple majors and it doesn’t work out. And then Tiger shows up and plays like Tiger, it was hard.”
Mickelson fans and admirers of his gambling style believed if he could just get one, the floodgates might open. That turned out to be the case as Mickelson won majors again in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2013. Last year’s British Open triumph put him a U.S. Open shy of becoming the sixth player to complete the career slam.
“I don’t know if I sensed at the time what was going to happen thereafter, but I felt like I wasn’t just trying to win just one,” Mickelson said. “I was trying to win multiple. That one was a big one because it got me started.”
Mickelson and Mackay had a feeling it might be a special week when they caught a huge break on the 13th hole in Friday’s second round when Mickelson’s 4-iron approach rolled into the tributary of Rae’s Creek but settled on an island of grass. It was the kind of luck champions tend to get.
“He chipped up to 6 inches and made (birdie),” Mackay said. “He and I thought maybe this is the week, and it was.”
It was the final nine on Sunday when Mickelson seized the moment. With Ernie Els making two eagles and two birdies on his final 12 holes to shoot 67 and set the clubhouse lead at 8-under par, Mickelson had to keep up playing two groups behind in the final pairing.
Birdies at Nos. 12, 13 and 14 got him within a shot of Els, but Mickelson failed to birdie the par-5 15th. On No. 16, however, he rolled in a 20-footer for birdie to tie for the lead, and the crowd erupted.
“I’m standing over there trying to keep it calm and the place was going bananas,” Mackay said. “So I wasn’t really looking at Phil as he came over to the bag while Chris DiMarco was putting, and he hit me pretty darn hard with the grip end of the putter and got right in my face and said, ‘Let’s get one more.’
“This guy was electric. I’ve never seen him so into it, and he’s into it all the time. This guy was here to win and win now.”
The drama was set on the 18th green. Els stayed loose on the nearby practice green while Mickelson hit his approach 18 feet above the hole but just inside DiMarco’s ball.
“DiMarco was the golf gods throwing us a bone there having the same line,” Mackay said. “Phil ended up playing more break on that putt because of what he saw Chris do. It was incredibly fortunate, but you need stuff like that to happen to win majors.”
“You don’t really think about how you’re going to react at the time,” Mickelson said of the low-flying leap that earned him grief he’s gladly taken ever since.
Mickelson has gone on to claim two more green jackets, a PGA and a British Open he didn’t think he could ever win. His six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open make for a frustrating void he hopes to one day fill.
But that first Masters victory 10 years ago remains the seminal moment of his career.
“If Phil had gone his entire career and never won the Masters, he wouldn’t have slept as well for the rest of his life,” Mackay said. “Let’s be honest – he absolutely had to win the Masters. So it meant everything to him. It gave him all the confidence in the world.”
Mickelson believes winning the Masters on a course designed for his game is the ultimate destiny for any golfing great.
“Any player would say if there were one major you wanted to win, it would be the Masters,” he said. “And so to have that be my first was very meaningful to me because of the way history is made at Augusta National every year, and you’re a part of that history. The way they treat the past champions and being part of that exclusive club on Tuesday night, all of that factors into the Masters. Whereas when I won the PGA in 2005, I’ve gone back to Baltusrol a couple of times, but I don’t get to go back there every year like we do at the Masters.”
“We joke sometimes,” said Mackay, “that when he’s 62 years old and he’s playing as a former champion there he’s going to be on that putting green on Thursday morning thinking, ‘I can beat these guys.’ ”