AUGUSTA, GA. -- There's a cruel moment in the lives of the lucky, or maybe unlucky, golfers who find themselves on the leaderboard Sunday at The Masters. They believe. Jordan Spieth, for instance, who finished five shots behind the eventual winner Jon Rahm.
Spieth felt like he came into the event mentally exhausted, trying to play more tournaments than usual to support the PGA Tour, and he only picked specific targets on about half the holes. He and his final round partner, Phil Mickelson, stayed in their own bubble, making birdies, not attracting much attention until they cruised into Amen Corner. Then the roars began.
"Did it feel a little like 2018?" he'd be asked afterwards.
"Honestly not really," Spieth said. "Until, I guess, 14 or 15."
Truth be told, he thought he was way out of it. Then he saw the big scoreboard. He and Mickelson were just behind Rahm and Brooks Koepka.
"Then after that ... ," he said, "... yeah."
Spieth stood at a microphone and answered all the questions, his voice calm and even, and though he talked about being frustrated, and called himself lazy, he did so in almost a monotone. But beneath the surface he churned. As he talked, he held a water bottle and he opened it and closed it, over and over, almost the entire time.
All Spieth could talk about were the shots he left on the course. Coming close, he said, felt worse than getting blown out. Six under with three bogeys would haunt him. A golfer only has so many chances to win a major Sunday and the opponent is almost always themselves. A foot off on two different par 3s.
"When you're that far back," he said, "you have to have everything go right."
Then he walked back into the clubhouse and got ready to go home.
MICKELSON WAS JUST a few steps behind him and stopped to answer some questions, too. He was the leader in the clubhouse and needed Rahm to collapse to have a shot at a playoff or an outright win. Mickelson smiled warily. He's on the rival LIV Tour and has suffered the most dramatic reputation hit because of his association with, and comments about, the Saudis. From afar it seemed like he'd been casual with the most precious and rare of commodities: unconditional, public love. Once he'd been the king of these grounds, waltzing into the place vacated in the golfing world's heart by Arnold Palmer. There's drama on the horizon for Mickelson. His friend, the convicted felon and famous gambler Billy Walters, has a book coming out in August. It's called "Gambler: Secrets from a Life at Risk." He promises to break his silence about Mickelson.
There seemed to be a cloud around Phil all week.
Then he birdied No. 6 -- "brutally difficult," Spieth called it -- and started climbing the leaderboard. He birdied 12, 13, 15, 17 and 18.
When the last putt rolled in, the crowd around the final green went absolutely nuts. Amy Mickelson smiled nearby in oversized green sunglasses and white rubber Wellingtons. Mickelson, who'd been a little understated all week, politely and discreetly tipped his cap at first but the cheers kept coming. Finally he gave himself over to the joy, making eye contact, giving thumbs up back to cheering fans, high fiving every kid leaning in on the rope line to the scorer's room. He looked at the leaderboard and was just two strokes back. Rahm had the whole second nine to play.
"I'm hesitant to say too much right now," Mickelson said.
He'd last won here in 2010, which was the first Masters for his great rival Tiger Woods after his car crash, divorce and tabloid sex scandal. That April might have been the peak of the love affair between Mickelson and the people who love golf. Standing in front of the Augusta National grill room Sunday, someone asked him if there are similarities between the golfer that played this past week and the one who won here in 2010. Mickelson shook his head.
"That was a long time ago," he said.
HE'S THE FACE of the LIV Tour along with Brooks Koepka, who led this tournament by two strokes when the round began. Koepka arrived not buying the narrative that the Saudi tour only appealed to fading stars. "We're still the same people," he says. "I think that's just manufactured by the media that we can't compete anymore; that we are washed up." He'd become a sentimental favorite after his appearance in the Netflix's "Full Swing" series where he seemed lost and broken, a shell of the player who'd won four majors by just out alpha-ing his opponents. All this week, though, he seemed loose, making jokes on social media about being assigned No. 69 by the tournament. He looked and played confident.
A green jacket would give him a lifetime Masters exemption and make his decision to leave the PGA Tour look a lot better. Since Woods reframed the world of golf in 1997, the players at the top of the food chain basically used the tour events as a chance to get ready for the four tournaments that truly mattered. So the way to sort out the PGA versus LIV battle is to see which one is better as a proving ground for majors. With an exemption and only 14 tournaments to play a year, wearing shorts and chasing guaranteed money, not to mention the huge bonus, Koepka looked to be in a pretty good spot for the future.
Then he started giving away shots. A bogey on 4. Bogey on 6 and 9 and 12. A birdie ... and then another bogey ... and then another birdie, four shots back with three to play. He looked lost. Believing has a half-life of nothing, turns out, and he played out the round until the end.
Lots of people felt the same.
Viktor Hovland started in contention and then collapsed. Walking between 9 and 10 he cursed in anger. A few steps ahead, Patrick Cantlay, who'd made a run and then faded, just talked to himself in some kind of waking nightmare. Patrick Reed made a run. Russell Henley, a Georgia Bulldog in a sea of national championship drunk Georgia Bulldogs, made a run, too. Scottie Scheffler got as low as 6 under before a double bogey on the dream killer No. 12 in Amen Corner, and all that momentum just turned to steam.
"I did some good things along with some bad things," Scheffler said, sounding like someone confessing to their priest.
EVERYONE WENT HOME as Rahm celebrated his life-changing victory. The private planes started leaving the private airport not far from the course. A KingAir headed to Stuart, Florida, the closest airport to Jupiter where so many golf stars live. Another left for Stuart 15 minutes later, with the leaders still out on the course. Players and fans left the 2023 Masters in their memories. Jon Rahm won. Everyone else lost. Golf is a brutal, beautiful game. Koepka felt gutted by his 8-under finish. Mickelson felt elated by his 8-under finish.
"I had so much fun today," he said.
A LIV fan saw Mickelson about to leave the course.
"Keep flying high!" he shouted.
That's the name of Mickelson's LIV team name. The HyFlyers. An airplane waited out at the airport to take him home. He'd finished second. This tournament could be a stepping stone, he hoped. Back home practicing alone he'd been shooting good scores, but when it mattered he just wasn't able to score. That changed Sunday. He felt like he'd been trying too hard, wanting to prove, wanting to press, instead of just standing over a ball and seeing his entire future consist of a single shot.
He's 52 years old and wants a final act. He sees what has happened to Woods. Mickelson has lost a lot of weight and has no injuries or physical problems. There's a chance he could do something historic in the coming years. How much of a chance? Well, that's impossible to say. But Sunday afternoon, in the last hours of daylight, he believed.