Mickelson makes the most of the moment

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Give credit to Phil Mickelson. When he finally wins a major championship, he gives golf its money's worth.

If we had only known that Mickelson would win the 2004 Masters with a thrilling back-nine comeback to overtake one of the best players in the world, we all would have waited patiently.

If Mickelson had only told us he would top off a furious charge of five birdies in seven holes with an 18-footer on the 72nd hole that peeked into the cup before curling in, we would have forgiven him his almosts.

If he had only let us know the amount of sheer joy he would deliver, both through his victory and his heartwarming reaction to it, he would have never been asked every 45 seconds or so about being the Best Player Never to Win a Major.

Someone asked him if he felt relief at ripping that label off his sleeve.

"None of it right now is relief," Mickelson said. "It feels awesome. I'm so excited. I have a memory or an experience that I'll remember the rest of my life."

Mickelson didn't just make a comeback, shooting a 31 on the back nine for a final-round 69 and a overall 9-under 279. He came back against Ernie Els, a three-time major champion who has wanted to win The Masters since he was an eight-year-old in South Africa, watching his countryman, Gary Player, charge to victory with a final-round 64 in 1978.

Els shot a virtually flawless 67 on Sunday, led by three strokes with five holes to play, made no mistakes coming down the stretch, and didn't even get into a playoff.

"I would have just loved to have won the thing. Arrggh," said Els, sounding at the end like a very big Charlie Brown. "I had that little image in my head all day, putting that jacket on."

Instead, it was Mickelson who walked into the press conference and said, "This" -- pointing at a smile as wide as Rae's Creek -- "and this" -- pointing at his green jacket -- "are not going anywhere for a while."

It's hard to know which of the many Kodak moments that Mickelson provided Sunday evening will be more enduring:

  • The leap when the putt dropped, and the hug of his longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay.

  • The hug of his wife Amy, whose health problems last year after giving birth to their son Evan, who also had health issues following the birth, threw Mickelson off stride for months.

  • The sight of Mickelson picking up two-year-old Sophia and, with eyes wide, saying to her, "Daddy won! Can you believe it?"

  • The walk from Butler Cabin to the putting green for the green jacket ceremony. With fans lining both sides of the sidewalk, the only way that you could tell Mickelson was coming was the sight of the flagstick from the 18th hole towering above the scrum. Bones walked off the green with it, and he may not have let go of it yet.

    Early this week, many players worried aloud that the changes made to toughen this famed course over the last three years would turn The Masters into an earlier, better-landscaped version of the U.S. Open. As the holes became longer and the fairways narrower, the scoring range of eagle-to-double bogey on the back nine would narrow too.

    As needless, baseless, Y2K-like worry goes, These Guys Are Good.

    The leaders gave fresh life to the old saying that The Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday. Els grabbed the lead at 5-under with an eagle at No. 8. When he reached the par-5 13th at 5-under, Mickelson and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer trailed him by a stroke, and seven other golfers, including major champions Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh, were within three strokes of the lead.

    If that wasn't good enough, the other member of Els' twosome, K.J. Choi, holed a 220-yard five-iron at the par-4 11th. Shortly after that, Padraig Harrington made an ace at No. 16. Ten minutes later, Kirk Triplett aced it too.

    The Sunday roars of Augusta National may have been strong enough to keep the predicted thunderstorms at bay. One of the roars, however, precipitated a tornado.

    When Els walked off of the 13th with his second eagle, he went to 7-under and stretched his lead to three strokes over Mickelson, who was standing on the 12th tee.

    "I heard the roar," Mickelson said. "I didn't know what had happened, but I figured he had just made eagle." Mickelson, even though, as he put it, "Nobody goes after that pin," did just that on the tricky par-3 12th.

    "I knocked it in there about 12 feet and made the putt," Mickelson said. "If I could make that putt on 12, all I'd have to do was birdie 13, and I would be within a shot with five to go."

    He made the putt and he birdied 13, and then he hit a pitching wedge to a foot on 14 to tie Els. And when the Big Easy went right back into the lead with a birdie at the par-5 15th -- Els played the par-5s Sunday in 6-under -- Mickelson matched him again a 15-footer at the par-3 16th.

    "It didn't seem overwhelming," Mickelson said. "I thought, 'I'll make this putt and I'll birdie one of the last two.' "

    Oh, is that all?

    "I know, I know," Mickelson said, "but it just didn't seem overwhelming at the time."

    That self-confidence is Mickelson in a nutshell. Even as he went 0-for-his-first-42 majors, he never wavered in his belief that he would win. The difference this week is that his game matched his belief.

    When he got a small break at the 18th -- Chris DiMarco's bunker shot rolled three inches behind Mickelson's ball mark, giving him a free look at the break, Mickelson made full use of it. It turns out there was a reason Bones wouldn't let go of the flagstick.

    "My grandfather collects the flags of the tournaments that I win," Mickelson said. "I'd write a little something on there and he would put them on his wall back home. He said, 'Enough of these Tour wins. I want a major.' "

    Al Santos passed away three months ago at age 97.

    "On that putt, Chris' ball was hanging on that left lip, and when it got to the hole, it just fell off. And my putt was almost on the identical line. It was hanging on that left lip. Instead of falling off, it caught that lip and circled around and went in. I can't help but think that he may have had a little something to do with that."

    Els, standing with his life Liezl at their Cadillac in front of the clubhouse, believed someone else helped Mickelson.

    "It was like the Man Upstairs was there for him," Els said. "Phil earned this one. He played well all year. He had a lot of drama in his life last year. This must be extra sweet for him."

    Right before he got into the car, Els said, "What the hell. We'll give it a go next year. It was a helluva tournament. The back nine..."

    When Mickelson picked up his four-year-old daughter Amanda, she wrapped her arms wrapped around her Daddy's neck. Amanda was born days after the late Payne Stewart made a 15-footer on No. 18 at Pinehurst No. 2 to win the 1999 U.S. Open. When Mickelson congratulated the winner, Stewart cupped Mickelson's face in his hands and, to let him know there was a whole world off that green, yelled, "There's nothing like being a father! Good luck with the baby!"

    "I thought of it," Mickelson said. "As I was holding my kids, I thought of it, too. It was similar. We both made a putt about the same length on the last hole to win by one. He was very prophetic about family."

    That loss to Stewart seemed to anoint Mickelson as the best player without a major. He was asked if he had ever thought about his career if he didn't win a major. "I had never thought about that," Mickelson said. He paused a beat and with a big grin added, "Nor do I have to."

    Five years later, he leaves that label behind for whom? Perhaps Sergio Garcia, who played the last 11 holes in 8-under on his way to a 66 and tied for fourth at 3-under. Then again, maybe it's Harrington.

    Whoever he is, he's got a tough act to follow.

    Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach him at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.