On April 9, Augusta National Golf Club paid farewell to three-time Masters Champion Arnold Palmer. The 74-year-old legend made his 50th and final competitive appearance in the spring classic. Two days later, Phil Mickelson put together a charge that was eerily reminiscent of Palmer's greatest performances, and became the unofficial "people's champion."
Mickelson erased a 46-event streak (which included four tries as an amateur) of never having won a major championship. The streak came to a halt as Mickelson coaxed in a downhill 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. The putt also gave Mickelson his first berth in the 22nd PGA Grand Slam of Golf, Nov. 22-24, at Poipu Bay Golf Course at The Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa in Kauai, Hawaii.
Mickelson is just the fourth player to win a Masters title with a birdie on the final regulation hole. Mark O'Meara last accomplished the feat in 1998. Mickelson's back nine rally allowed him to finish a stroke better than South African Ernie Els, who closed with a 67. With his victory, Mickelson joined Canada's Mike Weir, the Masters winner last year, and 1963 British Open Champion Bob Charles as the only left-handers to win major championships.
"It almost feels like make believe," said Mickelson. "My first thought was, 'I did it! I finally did it! I knew I could, but I finally did it."
Mickelson overcame a near disastrous front nine, where he saw a two-stroke lead slip after an opening 38. He recovered with a stunning 31 on the second nine -- featuring birdies on five of his final seven holes. That gave him a 69, and a winning total of 9-under-par 279, for his 23rd career victory.
It was the sixth straight major won a by a first-time champion, something that had never happened in 144 years of championship golf.
The dramatics were necessary to slip past Els, winner of three major titles but no Masters green jacket. Els made two eagles, on the eighth and 13th holes, that temporarily gave him a three-stroke advantage. But Mickelson stepped back after Els' eagle at 13 caused a large gallery roar and returned to birdie the 12th, 13th and 14th holes. An uphill, 15-foot birdie at the 16th earned him a tie with Els. He then set up the final hole birdie opportunity with a 3-wood tee shot down the middle of the 18th fairway.
"I can't believe this is happening," said Mickelson, after 2003 Champion Mike Weir slipped the 43-long green jacket over the new Champion's shoulders. "This is the fulfillment of dreams. 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."
Mickelson's previous major disappointments -- most notably one-stroke losses to Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open and to David Toms in the 2001 PGA Championship -- seemed far away now.
"I think Phil deserved this one," said Els. "Full credit to him."
South Korea's K.J. Choi closed with a 69, and finished third at 282, while Sergio Garcia -- who posted the week's lowest round of 66 -- tied for fourth with Germany's Bernhard Langer at 285.
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