Mickelson corrals long-awaited major

By Charles Robinson
STAR Staff

   AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson's big day in the sun finally arrived.
   Curling an 18-foot birdie putt into the back of the final hole, Mickelson on Sunday avoided a playoff with Ernie Els and captured the Masters championship for his long-awaited first major title.
   When the ball dropped into the putt, the crowd went wild and Mickelson did a jump for joy and pumped his fists in triumph. Embraced by his caddie and congratulated by fellow player Chris DiMarco, the big lefty took the ball from the cup, gave it a kiss and threw it into the Augusta National gallery.
   "Having it be such a tough quest, struggle, journey -- it feels that much better," said Mickelson after completing his 43rd major event, in which he shot a final-round 3-under 69 to finish with a 9-under 279.
   Dropping the label of being the best player to have never won a major, Mickelson became only the fourth player to win the Masters on a birdie putt at No. 18.
   He shared the thrill of the moment with his wife and three children when he walked off the green.
   Just before walking into the scoring hut to sign his card, Mickelson held daughter Sophia and said, "Daddy won. Can you believe it?"
   Only two other players, Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper (31) and MacDonald Smith (24), had more PGA Tour victories than Mickelson's 22 without ever proving victorious a major.
   Making Mickelson's task a difficult one on Sunday was Els, who nearly rode a final-round 67, which included a pair of eagles, to his first green jacket.
   Els was at peak form over the final 12 holes, where he salvaged four pars.
   "I think Phil deserved this one," said Els, who watched from the putting green as Mickelson ended his hopes of winning his fourth major. "He won this one. He didn't lose it like some of his other ones. Full credit to him."
   The final three holes proved to be the difference-makers, as Mickelson birdied at No. 16 -- erasing a one-shot deficit -- and No. 18, and Els missed birdie putts on No. 17 and No. 18.
   When Els, after blasting out of a deep bunker, settled for par on his final hole, he left Mickelson in charge of his own fate.
   After playing a 3-wood off the tee and keeping out of the bunkers, he punched his approach shot behind the hole.
   A stroke of good luck then intervened, with DiMarco hitting out of a greenside bunker and sending his ball slightly beyond Mickelson's marker, giving Mickelson a line on his dramatic putt.
   "I just couldn't believe that ball fell in there," said Mickelson, presented his green jacket by fellow lefty and last year's champ, Mike Weir.
   Mickelson and DiMarco were tied for the lead at the start of the final round, but within a few holes the tournament was basically up for grabs.
   After grabbing the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 7, Els followed up with an eagle that put momentum on the South African's side.
   However, Mickelson kept himself in striking distance by sinking three straight birdies.
   Refusing to buckle under the pressure, Mickelson was a far cry from the player he sometimes was in 2003, when he had one of his worst seasons.
   "Get used to me, because I'm going to be back every year," he told the Augusta National members at the award ceremony.
   Scoring an eagle on No. 11, K.J. Choi was very much in contention after nailing 40-foot birdie putt on the 13th, but finished up with a 69, three shots off the pace.
   The par-3 16th saw two hole-in-ones on Sunday, the first by Padraig Harrington. Kirk Triplett matched that feat just a few minutes later.
   Sergio Garcia posted the lowest score of this year's Masters, carding a 66 that was highlighted by an eagle on No. 15
   As for Tiger Woods, there wasn't much good in his game. Closing out with a 71, he recorded his worst finish ever at the event, tying for 22nd.
   Woods, however, picked the right time to turn in a forgettable performance. Phil Mickelson will be the name people remember from the 2004 Masters.