AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Phil Mickelson in a green jacket. Even
he had a hard time believing it.

The final leg in his odyssey to win a major championship came
down to an 18-foot putt yesterday, the kind Mickelson had grown
weary of watching others make as he stood to the side.

This time, the last chance belonged to him, a birdie putt that
kept him in suspense to the very end. It rolled toward the cup,
swirled around the left edge and dropped in.

Mickelson leapt as high as he could and threw both arms in the
air, kissed the ball that he plucked from the cup and tossed it
into a delirious crowd that felt the same way.

Finally!

“It almost feels like make-believe,” Mickelson said.
“My first thought was, ‘I did it! I finally did
it!’ I knew I could, but I finally did it.”

Those who doubted only had to look at his poise along a dramatic
back nine at Augusta National as Ernie Els tried to pull away with
an eagle, a birdie and a collection of clutch pars.

Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes and shot 31 on
the back — the best finish by a Masters champion since Jack
Nicklaus had a 30 in 1986. He closed with a 69.

The best proof of all was a 43-long green jacket.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Mickelson said
after Mike Weir slipped the jacket over his shoulders. Sure beats
the other thing he’s been carrying on his back for 12
years.

“This is the fulfillment of dreams,” he said.
“I’m just proud to be a champion here. It was an
exceptional, unbelievable back nine, and it’s something
I’ll remember forever and ever.”

Even as he sat in fabled Butler Cabin, he was reliving the
15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th that gave him a share of the
lead, and an 18-footer on the final hole that made Mickelson only
the fourth player in Masters history to win with a birdie on the
final stroke of the tournament.

Until yesterday, he was known as the best player to have never
won a major.

Now, he’s simply one of the best in the game.

“I didn’t think there was any way he would miss it,”
said Chris DiMarco, who played in the final group and had a par
putt from exactly the same line that allowed Mickelson to get a
good read.

Els felt helpless after closing with a 67. He was rapping putts
on the practice green, hopeful of a playoff and a chance for the
third leg of the Grand Slam, but was jolted into despair at the
sound of the cheer.

“I played as good as I could,” Els said. “What
more can you do, you know?”

Mickelson knows that feeling all too well. Of the half-dozen
close calls he has had in the majors, nothing was more jarring than
Payne Stewart holing a 15-foot par putt on the final hole at
Pinehurst to win the ‘99 U.S. Open, or David Toms making par
from 12 feet at the ‘01 PGA Championship to beat Mickelson by
one shot.

Before walking into the scoring hut to sign his card, Mickelson
grabbed daughter Amanda and said, “Daddy won. Can you believe
it?”

Mickelson finished at 9-under 279 and earned $1.17 million for
his 23rd career victory.

 

Phil’s First

Phil Mickelson finally got his major yesterday, but it’s
not like it was his first chance. He’s finished in the top 10
in seven Masters, including a third-place finish in each of the
last three years. Here are some of his more famous missed
opportunities.

1999 U.S. Open

Mickelson held a one-stroke lead over Payne Stewart at Pinehurst
with three holes remaining, but his only bogey of the round opened
the door for Stewart’s dramatic 15-foot par putt on the 18th
hole that won the championship.

2001 Masters

It was a matchup everyone wanted to see. Mickelson entered the
final day just one stroke behind Tiger Woods, and David Duval was
not far behind. But Phil shot a 70 in the final pairing with Tiger,
who posted a 68 en route to his own “Tiger Slam.”

2001 PGA Championship

Down by one stroke, Mickelson left his birdie putt short on 18.
David Toms elected to lay up on the huge par 4 at the Highlands
Course in Atlanta. Toms went up and down for the title.

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