Ten questions coming out of Augusta

Instant Classic is the best way to describe the 2004 Masters. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els was the showdown we've been waiting for since Tiger Woods started winning major championships. Only problem, Tiger wasn't part of the showdown.

Big picture, it doesn't seem to matter. Mickelson-Els has transcended, crossed over, become a permanent fixture in golf's time capsule. It's cool to talk Masters at the water cooler this week. Here's what you'll be hearing ...

Was that the best Masters ever?

Dan Jenkins said it was, but what does he know? He's only covered every Masters since Ben Hogan was collecting green jackets. Not to live in the past, but 1986 had Jack Nicklaus winning his 18th major championship with a second-nine 30, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros imploding, Tom Kite missing a tying birdie putt on the 72nd hole, and a leaderboard that also included Nick Price, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart. This one had a better 18th hole climax and Arnie's farewell but it lacked the Nicklausean presence that only a Tiger Woods can bring. That was Jack's last. This was Phil's first. Still, it was a battle of heavyweights, rivaling the 1999 U.S. Open that had Stewart beating Mickelson and Woods at Pinehurst.

Was it worth the wait for Phil Mickelson?
This definitely validates the 22 previous victories, but time will tell. To this point we've thought of Mickelson in mistake-prone, star-crossed, heart-breaking terms. If this is the first of many, then the 0-for-42 will have been worth it.

What's wrong with Tiger Woods?
Nothing. He's in the middle of a swing change. And don't even bring up Butch Harmon. Their reunion will never happen.

Is Phil more popular than Tiger?
He was at Bethpage and he was again at Augusta. Those were two decidedly different crowds and Mickelson's previous mishaps made him the sympathetic figure at the 2002 Open and the hero come home at the Masters.

Who's the new Best Player Without a Major?
Seriously, there's a major drop off now that Mickelson shed the 500-pound gorilla. Based on the World Ranking, it's Ireland's Padraig Harrington. Colin Montgomerie has since faded from the "Best Player" category.

Was there a conscious effort to put the roars back into Augusta?
Judging from the sly-dog look in the eye of Will Nicholson, chairman of the competition committee, most definitely. After all the measures that were taken to preserve the integrity of Augusta National, the green jackets moved up the tees and put the pins in places where the players could get at them. The result was more eagles in the final round than all of last year, including two aces at 16 and a hole-out at 11 by K.J. Choi.

Where does Phil go from here?
If he can stay committed, on to bigger and better things. He's just starting to feel the rhythm of life from the fairway, and with all that talent, scoring ability and closing power, the transformed Mickelson looked like he could do this again and again. Let's see. Now that he's got a taste, will he want more?

Will Ernie bounce back?

Most certainly. Don't forget, he's only 34, playing the best golf of his career. Plus, he already has scar tissue built up after finishing second in the first three majors of 2000, including blow out victories by Tiger in the Opens at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. What Sunday's closing 67 hammered home is just how hard it is to win a major. This was his second runner-up finish at Augusta, his fifth straight top-six. The Big Man's got a good 10-12 years remaining in his competitive window to get it done. His time will come.

Will Tiger Woods win one of the remaining three majors?

Not if he continues to strike the ball the way he did at Augusta. This was reminiscent of the Tiger we saw at all the 2003 majors. He keeps saying, "I'm close," but close seems far away.

Would it have mattered if Ernie was in the same pairing with Phil?
Probably. There's always more pressure going eyeball-to-eyeball. But that's part of the fate that was involved for Mickelson. Like Chris DiMarco's ball ending up in his line on the 72nd hole after two bunker shots. This one was cosmic, written in the stars, acted out by the stars.

What's Sergio's problem?
Too much double standard involving Tiger as it relates to criticism. But he sure didn't do himself any favors by coming into the press center after shooting 66 on Sunday at Augusta and playing the role of bitter man.

Did Jack Nicklaus make a mistake in hinting at a Masters retirement on the day Arnold Palmer is walking up the 18th hole for the final time?
Without a doubt, but the six-time champ deserves a pass. He just missed the cut by two strokes despite ranking 21st in GIR. It was a case of a frustrated man coming off the golf course in a foul mood, not a jealous icon trying to grab a piece of the spotlight.

How did Phil do on Jay Leno?
He made birdie. "I've worn the jacket some places I probably shouldn't have," he told Leno. "Amy and I took it to bed with us Sunday night. You couldn't pry it off."

Next question?

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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