America celebrates an extraordinary Masters

It seemed the whole of the United States needed this victory almost as badly as Phil Mickelson. No sooner had the Californian, in a fantastic climax, won the 68th Masters for his first major triumph than he was receiving a congratulatory telephone call from President Bush. Briefly on Easter Sunday the Stars and Stripes was not being flown at half-mast.

Mickelson, winless in his previous 46 major championships, rolled in a birdie putt from 18 feet at the 18th to deny the South African Ernie Els by a stroke.

It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary day during which Els, a major-winner but not the owner of a Masters Green Jacket, had registered two eagles to open up a three-shot lead; KJ Choi entered the picture by holing from 220 yards for an eagle on the 11th and, in quick succession, Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett had holes-in-one at the 16th.

Mickelson recovered from a hesitant start to come home in 31 for a third successive 69 and an aggregate of 279, nine under par for the tournament and one lower than Els, who had a 67 in the final round. Whereas Els plundered the par-fives - he had eagle threes on the eighth and 13th - Mickelson's birdie twos on the treacherous 12th and 16th finally convinced him that this would be his day of days.

Els, the Big Easy, munched on a big apple by the 18th green after completing his round but could only watch and wait with a deepening sense of hopelessness as Mickelson fulfilled his date with destiny.

On the 18th Mickelson hit a three wood off the tee and left himself 162 yards to the flag. His eight iron stopped about 18 feet above the hole. His playing partner, Chris DiMarco, then did Mickelson a huge favour by putting his bunker shot three inches beyond his partner's ball. It meant, of course, that DiMarco had to putt first.

"It was such a fast putt, I had a great look at Chris's stroke and studied every inch of break,'' Mickelson said. "Chris's ball was hanging on that left lip but when it got to the hole it just fell away. My putt was almost on the identical line. Instead of falling off, my ball caught the left lip and circled around and dropped in.''

Mickelson, a left-hander, leapt about five feet in the air. "Oh my God,'' he cried as he walked into the arms of his wife, Amy, and their three young children. "The harder the struggle, the greater the reward,'' he said. "Winning my first major after such a difficult journey makes it that much sweeter.''

It was a record sixth straight major tournament that had been won by a first-timer. Tiger Woods, the world No 1, has now gone seven majors without a win. He finished tied in 22nd place, his worst finish in the Masters since he missed the halfway cut as an amateur in 1996.

Mickelson won $1,170,000 (£638,600) to move him into fourth place on the all-time money list with more than $27m. It was the 23rd victory of his 12-year career.

Mickelson birdied two of the last three holes to come home in a five-under-par 31, one shot off the back-nine record by a winner. He had finished second in three majors and was third in five others, including the past three Masters.

"I guess Phil deserved this one,'' Els said. "He played great down the stretch. You're in another guy's hands. There's nothing you can do about it. I thought this was going to be my week. I gave it my best shot. I'm very disappointed but I'll get over this, no problem. It just wasn't meant to be.''

Els, who has won the Open Championship, and the US Open on two occasions, crucially failed to make birdie putts of 17 feet on the 17th and from 14 feet on the 18th.

Mickelson's early problems started on the fifth, where he failed to get his second shot out of a greenside bunker, and he also bogeyed the sixth to put him at two-over for the round.

That would be his last mistake. He saved par on the 10th and captured birdies on the 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th and 18th. "Things started to change and everything clicked on the 12th,'' he said.

Ahead of him, Els had just made his eagle on the 13th. "I heard the roar and I figured Ernie had made a three,'' Mickelson said. "I thought that if I could make a two on the 12th and get a birdie on the 13th I would be within a shot with five holes to go. When that putt went in at number 12, that's when I started to feel I could make this happen.''

Sergio Garcia, who finished with a 66, moved into joint fourth with Bernhard Langer, and the young Englishman Paul Casey, who was making his debut, was tied for sixth. It not only earned him $189,893 but an invitation to return to Augusta National next year.

Mickelson's monumental achievement now leaves Colin Montgomerie as the nearly man of professional golf, a European champion who has yet to capture a big one. Montgomerie, who missed the cut here following an 80 in the second round, left the course without uttering a word.

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