There could hardly have been a more popular champion then Phil Mickelson. Known until that moment as “the best player not to have won a major”, the Californian “Lefty” from San Diego had played 46 Grand Slam events without inscribing his name on one of golf’s major trophies. Until the 2004 US Masters at Augusta…
A six-metre birdie on the 18th put the finishing touch to a long wait in pursuit of his first major, after an exciting duel over the final nine holes with South African Ernie Els, who had finished 20 minutes earlier and was waiting expectantly to see how events unfolded.
Mickelson, who started that Sunday as co-leader with compatriot Chris DiMarco, was not willing to let victory escape him this time, although he was made to suffer on the front nine, especially after carding three bogeys in four holes and seeing Els overtake him on the eighth thanks to an eagle. The Californian was not daunted, however, and fine-tuned his putting in such an impressive manner that he made five birdies on the last seven holes, ultimately beating Els by a single stroke.
His horrible streak of 46 appearances in Grand Slam tournaments without a single victory was over. No more doubts about Mickelson's game and whether he was able to withstand the stress of a major down to the finishing line. He played spectacular golf right to the end, with two birdies on the final three holes for a three-under 69.
The final putt rolled to the bottom of the 18th hole, unleashing cheers from the crowd. Mickelson jumped up and raised his fists, kissing the ball as he lifted it out of the hole.
"My God!" said the new champion as he left the course and ran into the arms of his wife and three children.
Els was flawless, making two eagles in a round of 67 that seemed like it would be enough to give him the coveted green jacket. But Mickelson was more determined than ever. He made three consecutive birdies to stay in the fight, drew level with his rival with a birdie from five metres on the 16th, and then took over centre-stage on the 18th.
Despite coming close to winning Grand Slam titles before, Mickelson had never reached the final hole in the lead. He never had the final word. But that Sunday, 11 April 2004, the best player who had never won a major refused to let his chances slip away again.
Korean K.J. Choi finished third (three strokes behind the champion), after a round of 69 during which he holed out for an eagle with a five-iron from 200 metres on the par-four 11th. In addition to the two aforementioned eagles by Els, the day included two holes-in-one on the 16th, by Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett. Still known as “El Niño”, Sergio García (24 at the time) finished fourth, tied with Bernhard Langer, after a superb final-round 66.
“Having had such a difficult road to win my first major makes it so much sweeter,” said Mickelson. “When you finally achieve that goal, the longer the fight lasts, the greater the reward.”
After his memorable 2004 triumph, Mickelson, who now has 44 US PGA Tour wins, donned the green jacket twice more (2006 and 2010), and also won the 2005 US PGA Championship and 2013 British Open. In the fourth major, the US Open, so far he has finished second six times.