AUGUSTA, Ga. — The hugs with his family took place on the clubhouse lawn, not the 18th green. That was occupied, and by this time there was nothing Phil Mickelson could do about it.
He had celebrated there before, most famously eight years ago when he won his first green jacket and took his young daughter in his arms, saying, "Daddy won! Can you believe it?"
Now it looked like he couldn't believe he had lost.
A fourth green jacket would have put him in the company of Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer at the Masters. A fifth major championship would have moved him among the likes of Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros.
But it all fell apart, in large part because once again Phil couldn't help being Phil.
He aimed where other players wouldn't dare go on the par-3 fourth hole, certain that his calculations were better than theirs. The target wasn't even the green, but Mickelson was sure he could escape with par from the bunker or anywhere left of there — even the grandstand.
He thought too much, and disaster ensued. Nothing new there, he's been doing it his whole career.
Six years ago it cost him the U.S. Open at Winged Foot when he famously pulled out a driver he didn't need on the 18th tee. The ball went sideways and he made double bogey, prompting him to proclaim "I am such an idiot."
Those listening then could only nod their heads in agreement. Those listening to his explanation for why he gave this Masters away could only look at him in perplexed silence.
"Tactically I hit that shot where I had to hit it, which is at the bunker," Mickelson insisted. "Anything left of the pin is fine but the right side is almost a sure bogey."
Well, almost anything. Mickelson's shot missed the bunker, careened off a metal railing on the grandstand and ended up in some bushes in a wooded area short and left of the green on the par-3. He could have taken an unplayable, but that would have meant going back to the tee and hitting what would be his third shot, so he tried to improvise.
Lefty turned righty, and it wasn't pretty. He turned a wedge around and tried to hack the ball out, but it moved only about a yard. He did it again, pulling it behind the left bunker, then compounded his mistake by chunking his next one in the bunker.
When it was all over he had made six, his second triple bogey of the tournament. There was still lots of golf to be played, but the damage had already been done.
"If it goes into people and stops right there, no problem," Mickelson said. "If it goes into the grandstand, no problem. It hit the metal railing and shot in the trees. And not only was it unplayable, but I couldn't take an unplayable. There was no place to go other than back to the tee. So I took the risk of trying to hit it a few times."
To be fair, the 240-yard hole was playing tough, second on this day only to No. 1. But 41 of the 63 players in the final round managed to make par by aiming at the green, and only one player beside Mickelson made worse than bogey. His triple bogey on the way to a final-round 72 was the worst score of the day on the hole, not that they give out any awards for that.
What made it even worse was that this Masters was Mickelson's for the taking. He had the experience of being in the final group, and he was coming off a nifty 66 the day before that left him just a shot behind Peter Hanson. They didn't even need to find a green jacket to fit him in the wardrobe closet in the clubhouse, because Mickelson had won three already.
He was practically bubbling with excitement the night before, so eager was he to get out and show Bubba Watson and others how the final round is supposed to be done at the Masters.
"I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters," Mickelson said then. "It's the greatest thing in professional golf."
Take away the fourth hole, and it was great. Mickelson made birdies on three par-5s coming in, and still had an outside chance to get in a playoff if he could have made birdies on two of the last three holes. Ifs are not allowed in tournament golf, but if Mickelson had just made par on No. 4 like 41 other players did he would have been celebrating on the 18th green instead of commiserating with his family outside the clubhouse.
He's spent the better part of his career analyzing — and over analyzing — what should be a simple game. He might have won eight major championships by now instead of four had he not been so sure that he had a better way to do things on the golf course than any of the greats and not-so-greats who came before him.
He's stubborn in his ways, certain of his beliefs. He's also immensely gifted, and he's been right often enough to make himself the second best player of his time as well as a fan favorite who smiles even when things go bad.
Mickelson wasn't smiling on the clubhouse lawn while Watson and Louis Oosthuizen traded birdie misses on the 18th green a few hundred yards away, then headed down the 10th hole where Watson was crowned the new champion. This one hurt because he knew how close he was, and knew that at the age of 41 he might not have too many chances left.
Still, he wasn't about to admit he was wrong.1 comment on this story
"I can't feel like I lost it," he said. "But it just didn't happen for me."
Maybe next year he'll aim for the green.