AUGUSTA, Ga. — It has been 10 years since Phil Mickelson finally freed himself from the shackles of having never won a major championship, a decade since he made an 18-foot birdie putt at the final hole and leaped “so high I almost hit lightning” in jubilation.
A decade later, he remembers the moment he won the 2004 Masters — the first of his three green jackets — more for the relief he felt of finally breaking through after so many near-misses at the Augusta National Golf Club and other major championships.
“There was an amount of pressure that became relief that I won, as opposed to joy,” Mickelson said. “Now, whenever I win, when I won the British Open last year, I just felt so ecstatic and such great joy to have had that accomplishment. I think there was a sense of relief 10 years ago because it had been building for a while.”
Mickelson was 0 for 42 in major championships when he drove down Magnolia Lane in 2004, carrying the burden of being the best player to never win a major. He had had chances before at the Masters — good ones, too — to end the drought. In each of the previous three years, he finished third each time, twice to winner Tiger Woods.
This time, though, he didn’t let victory slip away. With birdies on three of the final five holes, including the dramatic winner at No. 18, Mickelson edged Ernie Els by one shot to win the green jacket and open the door for other major victories.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” Mickelson said as he prepares to make his 22nd appearance at Augusta National today when the 78th Masters begins. “That win 10 years ago, it just propelled me. I knew once I won one, I really felt confident I would win a few, but I needed to get that first one, and that was a big one.”
Mickelson won four majors after the first one in 2004 — two more Masters (2006, 2010), the 2005 PGA Championship and the 2013 British Open — and needs one more green jacket to tie Woods and Arnold Palmer, second behind Jack Nicklaus (6).
And, even though he hasn’t played well this season — his best showing in nine events came last week when he finished tied for 12th at the Shell Houston Open — Mickelson is aware that his game somehow gets magically transformed when he makes the turn off Washington Road and heads down Magnolia Lane.
“It’s a magical place to begin with,” said Mickelson, the fifth-ranked player in the world. “But for me, personally, the feeling that comes over me as I drive down Magnolia Lane is I don’t have to play perfect to play well here because I can recover from mistakes here. You always have a shot. You always have a swing if you hit a bad shot. You have a chance to salvage your par. You have a chance to let your short game save it for you.
“This course has always been a course that I felt comfortable on and I’ve played some of my best golf here.”
Indeed, in addition to his three victories, Mickelson has finished third five times and in the top 10 14 times at Augusta National. He hasn’t missed a cut at the Masters since 1997.
Still, Mickelson admits to being a little nervous this year because of his spotty play and injuries that caused him to withdraw from two events. The most recent was an oblique injury that caused him to pull out of the third round at the Texas Open.
But working nightly with a physioball has strengthened Mickelson’s back and his side muscle injury has healed on its own. Today, he will test them — and his nerves — when he tees off in a curious threesome with Els, who calls his loss to Mickelson in 2004 the most painful I’ve had;” and England’s Justin Rose, who beat him at the most recent U.S. Open at Merion. It was the sixth time Mickelson has finished runner-up in the national championship, more than any player in history.
“The parts of my game, if I break them down, they feel terrific,” Mickelson said. “But I haven’t put them together this year. I haven’t had the results to fall back on. I haven’t experienced the pressure to feel comfortable in that environment. So I’m certainly nervous, because this is a week that I care about the most. I have to rely on kind of past performances and past successes and past memories to build that momentum.”
There is another week coming up that Mickelson cares dearly about, and that will be June 12-15 in Pinehurst., N.C., site of the 2014 U.S. Open. Not only does Mickelson want to put an end to all his near-misses in the U.S. Open, he wants to do it where he got beat by Payne Stewart’s dramatic 20-foot par putt on the final hole in the 1999 championship.
For now, he would like to add another green jacket, 10 years after the first one.
“I do know that Arnold and Tiger have four jackets and I have three,” Mickelson said. “I know Jack has six, but nothing I can do about that right now. I’m just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.