Masters Moments: Years of frustration end with Lefty Leap, 2004

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The victory leap was mostly measured in wisecracks.

The emotional chasm that was finally spanned, however, was counted in years.

When Phil Mickelson, comedic punching bag, occasional source of outright derision and a man often cruelly characterized as a serial gag artist, rolled in the winning putt on the 72nd hole of the 2004 Masters, more than fans leaped out of their chairs.

Both arms raised overhead and the putter still in his grip, the hefty Lefty jumped into the air on the 18th green, a photograph that ranks among the most popular in modern golf history. To this day, Mickelson gets teased about his Air Phil reaction, mostly because you could barely fit a scorecard in the gap between his cleats and the green grass below.

"He had at least a half-second of hang time," playing partner Chris DiMarco cracked a couple of months later.

A silhouette of the airborne Mickelson at that moment has morphed into the logo for his personal website, which is completely understandable. Given his considerable gifts and accomplishments in regular PGA Tour play, it was a snapshot in time he had been waiting more than a decade for.

A few moments later, Mickelson slipped his arms into the club's trademark green jacket, size 43 long. It fit at least as well as the parallel math -- the week marked his 43rd major as a pro and most of the Grand Slam events that preceded it had been long, indeed.

The Best Player Never to Have Won a Major was a mantel he gladly passed on to another. To move from onus to bonus required the greatest nine holes of his career.

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With Ernie Els torching the back nine in front of him to apply the pressure, Mickelson responded with a 31 over his inward nine, cementing the title with that curling putt on the final hole. He got a huge break when DiMarco putted a minute earlier on the same line, giving him a roadmap to the cup.

The tension over the last two hours was excruciating. Els, a few feet away on the practice putting green, waited nervously as his fate was decided on the 18th green by another man. It was electric.

CBS Sports analyst David Feherty wrote: "The atmosphere over the last few holes was crackling like the mast above Frankenstein's lab. ... Martha Burk could have run naked down Washington Road and people would have paid her even less attention than they did last year. This was about Phil."

In a classically understated line, Augusta National club member Billy Payne, now the club and tournament chairman, sat beside the giddy Mickelson at the interview dais and introduced him thusly: "Ladies and gentlemen, most eager to answer your questions, 2004 Masters champion, Phil Mickelson."

Luckily for me, I got to lob the first query. Mickelson had watched helplessly over the years as playing partners Payne Stewart and David Toms made walk-off game-winners on the 72nd hole to beat him at majors. This time, he got to deliver the roundhouse himself.

"I think having, in the past 10 years, come so close so many times, to have had putts made on me in the last holes to lose by a shot, to have had good last rounds fall short, to have bad last rounds and fall short, to have it be such a difficult journey to win my first major, makes it that much more special, sweeter, and it just feels awesome," he said.

Exactly right. Lefty spoke for another 30 minutes, but like his spontaneous leap on the 18th green, his first-blush reaction was best.

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