Phil Mickelson was doing his best not to cry again as he slipped on another green jacket and tried to put into words things that he couldn’t possibly put into words.
He had already shed a tear on the 18th green, though he wasn’t alone. Anyone who knew the story had to shed a few, too, as Mickelson latched onto the tiny blonde woman who had been through so much and shared an embrace that neither seemed willing to end.
He had struggled on the golf course all year, but that meant nothing. Not compared to the struggles Amy Mickelson went through while battling breast cancer.
There would be plenty of time later to talk about the shot that will live in Masters lore, plenty of time to reflect on what a third title means to his career. As the fading sun added some drama to the victory ceremony on the practice putting green, though, Mickelson wanted to talk about something closer to his heart — his wife.
“We’ve been through a lot this year; it means a lot to share some joy together,” he said. “She’s an incredible wife, an incredible mother. She’s been an inspiration for me this past year, seeing what she’s been through.”
It couldn’t have been more sincere. It could hardly have been more appropriate.
All week long the talk at the Masters was of another golfer and other women. The circus that surrounded Tiger Woods blew into town on Monday, and the tent was still up as the leaders teed off on a Sunday afternoon brimming with drama.
Mickelson hadn’t been ignored, but he had certainly been overlooked. He wasn’t alone, because the drama surrounding the comeback of Woods overshadowed the entire week at Augusta National.
Until early Sunday evening, that is. That’s when the week that golf feared suddenly became the week golf fans will always remember.
It started with a shot a Vegas high-roller would have never dreamed of betting on. It ended with a scene so touching it washed away any lingering memories of the stain Woods had put on this Masters.
The man who stands for everything Woods doesn’t stood wearing the green jacket Woods so desperately coveted. Even better, when he looked up on the 18th green, his wife — who had been bed-ridden most of the week — and his children were there to share it all with him.
“I was just really glad she was there,” Mickelson said. “I wasn’t sure if she was going to be there today. I knew she would be watching. I didn’t know if she would be behind 18. To walk off the green and share that with her is very emotional for us.”
If it was emotional for Mickelson, it was also therapeutic to golf. The throngs who crowded every hole as the leaders made their way around Augusta National may not have been quite sure how much emotion they were going to invest with Woods, but with Lefty there was no doubt.
They cheered him on every shot, pulled for him at every turn. And when he hit the shot on No. 13 no one will ever forget, they roared with delight.
The swashbuckler danced with danger and pulled it off. Mickelson couldn’t help himself because, while the risk was great, the reward was even greater.
He’s taken that approach his whole career, and he’s lost some big tournaments because of it. He could have lost this Masters, too, something caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay was thinking as he debated the wisdom of the shot with his boss of 18 years.
“I begged him to lay up on 13,” Mackay said. “He said, ‘Get out of the way.’”
Mickelson was in the pine needles off the right side of the 13th fairway with two large trees right in front of him and 207 yards to the hole. He had a 6-iron in hand, and a narrow chute of just a few feet to feed the ball through while making sure he hit it pure enough to clear the water in front of the green.
No one else would have even attempted it. Mickelson didn’t give it a second thought.
“I just felt like at that time, I needed to trust my swing and hit a shot,” Mickelson said, “and it came off perfect.”
The ball flew out of the pine needles, settling just 4 feet from the hole. Mickelson missed the eagle putt but made the comebacker for birdie and didn’t miss another shot the rest of the way in.
“It’s one of those shots, really, that only Phil can pull off,” playing partner Lee Westwood said. “Most people would’ve just chipped that out. But that’s what great players do. They pull off great shots at the right time.”
Indeed, the shot was a reminder of just what a great player Mickelson is. The other reminder is that he’s now won four major championships, three of them at the place where he first broke through with a win in 2004 that broke a long scoreless streak in big tournaments.
That tournament will be remembered for the leap Mickelson took on the 18th green after sinking a 20-footer to win. He then scooped up his daughter, Amanda, and told her something she likely couldn’t comprehend at the time.
“Daddy won!” he said. “Can you believe it?”
Amanda is 10 now, and Saturday night she had to have her wrist put in a splint because of a hairline fracture from a roller skating fall. Life isn’t always perfect for the perfect family man, but that was a mere blip compared to the cancer issues both his mother and his wife face.
Mickelson, who has for the most part kept Amy’s condition and treatment a private matter, said earlier this week that her long-term prognosis is very good, though she still deals with unspecified quality-of-life issues. Once a fixture in the crowd following Mickelson, she hasn’t been on the course with him at a tournament since being diagnosed last year.
On this memorable day, she walked hand-in-hand with her husband off the 18th green, waving to everyone along the way. People stood and cheered, yelling out well wishes to both.
Mickelson was red-eyed, seemingly shell-shocked, the goofy grin that so often adorns his face gone for the moment.
Amy, though, was all smiles.
“Good to see you guys,” she told them.
Surely it was. But not nearly as good as it was for golf to see a champion and his wife, together once again.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org