Railing against his fate

Phil Mickelson was in deep trouble after his ball hit a grandstand railing on the fourth hole on Sunday. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A sore throat kept her from conversing much, so Amy Mickelson had to whisper over the phone to her husband, Phil, the past few days before arriving at Augusta National on Sunday to witness what she hoped would be another major championship victory.

A spring break vacation to the Bahamas was planned regardless of the outcome at the Masters, so Amy brought the couple's three kids to the course and nervously paced around the grounds as Phil sought a fifth major title.

But when he walked off the green to greet a smiling Amy and the kids, the dream had already died. Doomed by a killer bad break earlier in the round, Mickelson could never recover, ultimately finishing two shots short of the playoff won by Bubba Watson.

The plane leaves in the morning, minus the hardware.

"I'm sorry we're not taking along the green jacket," said Amy, still smiling. "But that's OK. It's fun to be in the mix."

Nobody had ever won the Masters after having made a triple-bogey during the tournament. Overcoming two triples was nearly impossible.

But that was the predicament Mickelson put himself in on the fourth hole at Augusta National, where his 4-iron approach shot to the tough par-3 flew to the left of the green, hit a grandstand railing, sailed over the crowd and into an area from which Mickelson had no shot. He ended up making a triple-bogey 6.

The shot was not nearly as bad as it sounds. Mickelson was aiming left of the green, knowing that the right side greenside bunker was trouble.

"Tactically, I hit that shot where I had to hit it, which is at the bunker," Mickelson said. "It was just left of the bunker, it hits the grandstands with the people, easy chip up the hill. I practice that chip over and over because you can't go at that pin. At the worst I was going to make 4."

Instead, the ball came to rest amid trees and bamboo. Mickelson considered taking an unplayable lie penalty, which means a one-stroke penalty and a drop two club lengths away. But doing that would not have given him relief. His choices were to go back to the tee and face the 225-yard shot again, hitting three. Or try to play it.

It took Lefty two right-handed swings to extract the ball, and then he left his fourth shot in the bunker. From there, he got up and down for a crushing triple-bogey 6.

"It was a horrible break," said Mickelson's caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, who noted that Mickelson had hit his tee shot in the same direction on Thursday, but was short of the grandstand. He got that up and down for a par. "If you hit it in that right bunker, you're making 4. You're absolutely dead, unless you make a 30-footer.

"He was basically trying to hit it at the pin or in the bunker and he hit it just left of the bunker. You're hoping it goes into the bunker or is right of the bleachers. But it hits the bleachers and somehow misses 500 people. When we got there, it was surprising that it was where it was. How did it get to get past all these people to here?"

From there, Mackay said there was not a reasonable expectation to do anything more than Mickelson did.

"There was a chance he could get some of the ball, get it out near the bunker," he said. "And get up and down and make 4. That is what he was hoping to do. It was a really tough break.

"It is what it is."

Mickelson paid a hefty price. The triple-bogey dropped him four shots off the pace, and although he didn't make a bogey the rest of the day, he managed just three more birdies -- all at the par-5s.

With Louis Oosthuizen making a double-eagle at the par-5 second hole and Watson making four straight birdies on the back nine, it was too much ground to make up.

Consider that Mickelson also made a triple-bogey on the 10th hole on Thursday when he had to declare a lost ball after an errant drive. If he turns each of those triples just into double-bogeys, he would have been in the playoff.

"Even after that triple [Sunday], I birdied the three par-5s, had many chances to make birdies and wasn't able to get the ball to go in," Mickelson said. "They were just coming right up to the edge and just not quite peeking in.

"I had a fun day. I had a fun opportunity on the back nine all the way up through 17 holes where if I could have birdied the last two [I would have] gotten in the playoff," he said.

"It's disappointing that I didn't grab that fourth green jacket. It's disappointing that I didn't make it happen on the back nine and get the putts to fall, even though I felt like I was hitting them pretty good. I gave them all good chances, I just couldn't quite get them to go."

As far as major disappointments go, Mickelson has had his share, although this is not the worst. He's finished runner-up at the U.S. Open on five occasions, none more excruciating than in 2006 when he held a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot and made a double-bogey 6 to miss a playoff by a stroke.

There were the near misses at Pinehurst and Shinnecock and Bethpage and Pebble Beach. There was last year's close call at Royal St. George's for the British Open.

Where this one ranks on the "what-if" meter is difficult to determine. Certainly Winged Foot was horrible. But this was more of a dull pain. Mickelson probably had no business contending after being 4 over par through 14 holes on Thursday. That he battled back into contention was impressive. That he began the final round in the last group and just a shot behind Sweden's Peter Hanson, a virtual novice in majors, set up well for a fifth major title and a fourth Masters.

A win Sunday would have tied Mickelson with Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods at four Masters. He would have been tied for 14th all-time with five majors. At age 41, it could have been viewed as the crowning achievement as his Hall of Fame induction nears next month.

Hanson called being in the last group with Mickelson "the best thing on earth, to play the back nine at Augusta. The atmosphere and the noise around the back nine was just fantastic."

Mickelson knows this well. The fans love him here, and he feeds off the emotion. Nobody worked harder in their pre-tournament reconnaissance, as Mickelson made two separate visits to Augusta National over the past month, looking to pick up as much knowledge as he could.

Of course, nothing he did could prepare him for the funky bounce off a grandstand railing.

"What will I take from this day?" he said. "Third place. It was not what I was hoping for."

And yet, there was Amy, waiting, knowing. So was Phil's mom and dad, Mary and Phil Sr. They've been through their share of trauma in the past few years, with both Amy and Mary overcoming breast cancer. Phil has had a bout with arthritis, an affliction that he never uses as an excuse but one that must have some effect on practice and preparation.

So coming close, even though he didn't let on, had to hurt.

"He just loves this place, as you well know," Mackay said.

"You know Phil, but tomorrow he's going to be on spring break," Amy said. "I don't know a more resilient man. This tournament obviously means more to him than anything. He was prepared, focused. He felt ready. But there were a couple of holes, unfortunately …"

And one in particular on Sunday.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.