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Last Updated: Monday, 12 April, 2004, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Happiness abounds for major Mick
By Tom Fordyce

Hold on a second. Phil Mickelson - Phil Mickelson - holing a nerve-searing putt from 18 feet to win a major?

Phil Mickelson celebrates his winning putt
And the waiting is finally over

Times are good for sport's nearly-men. First Britain's favourite losing athlete goes from "Plucky Paula" to "Record-breaking Radcliffe", then Middlesbrough go and win a trophy.

Now the man who has been the bridesmaid on so many occasions that he probably uses confetti as a ball-marker has gone and won the Masters.

Tim Henman might as well get practising his Wimbledon victory speech.

There was everything to like about Mickelson's triumph, and nothing - unless you're Mrs Els - to feel sorry about.

Watching Mickelson blow chance after chance at the majors was like waking up with a hangover on New Year's Day - inevitable, but no less depressing for it.

My grandfather had all the flags from the tournaments I'd won and he told me he didn't want any more from regular events, he just wanted the majors
Phil Mickelson

The story was always the same.

Rip-roaring, cavalier shot-making and devil-may-care putting would take him so close to the trophy that he could have engraved his name on it with his own teeth.

And then The Fear would grip him. He would hit his irons like a glassy-eyed gambler in Las Vegas, going for broke when playing the odds would have served him so much better.

Over the putts, his backswing would become as long and wobbly as a jellied eel. Five-footers would slip by, his wide-eyed hopeful face would screw up with anguish and the prize would slip through his fingers once again.

As he staggered through the front nine holes in Sunday's final round, it looked like the same old script was being dusted down yet again.

For each of the last 13 years, the Masters has been won by a player in the final pairing. But Phil has been ignoring favourable stats like that all his life.

FINALLY IT'S PHIL..
Phil Mickelson smiles in his green jacket
Age: 33
Majors played pre-2004 Masters: 46
Top ten major finishes: 17
Top four major finishes: 9
Masters third places: 4
Major wins: 0 - until Sunday...

Bogeys at the third, fifth and sixth holes saw him drop down the field. Ernie, meanwhile, was starting to drive like a traction engine and putt with the precision of Jonny Wilkinson kicking for goal.

But something was different. Mickelson's shoulders were not slumped. His eyes were still bright. Hell, he was smiling.

He was smiling so much that he might have been playing a pro-celebrity charity match. As each hole went by, and the birdies began to pile up, such was his look of chubby delight that he began to resemble Peter Kay waiting for punchline to kick in.

The Mickelson of 2004, it is now clear, is a very different man from the overwrought character of previous years.

His swing is tighter, his putting style more controlled and his tactics less gung-ho.

As importantly, he is approaching big tournaments and the pressure they bring with the relish of someone who knows that there are more important things in life than green jackets.

Just over a year ago, he stood helpless in a hospital corridor while his wife Amy was rushed into intensive care after nearly dying while giving birth to their first son, Evan.

Evan, born limp and not breathing, followed his mother onto a life support machine.

Both survived after tough battles, and both were there at the 18th green at Augusta as Mickelson's career-changing putt tickled round the edge of the hole and then dropped.

Victory smiles

One man who didn't make it to the scene of triumph was Mickelson's grandfather, who died in January aged 97.

"He had all the flags from the tournaments I'd won and he told me he didn't want any more from regular events, he just wanted the majors," said Mickelson on Sunday night.

"He said to me that he thought this is my year.

"As I looked at the putt on 18, I saw how Chris DiMarco's ball stayed on the left, My ball was on a very similar line, and when it went in on the left edge I couldn't help but think that he [my grandfather] may have something to do with it."

It was a victory to bring a smile to the face of even the most cynical and world-weary sport-watcher.





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