James Lawton: Mickelson's leap for the modest man

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Shortly before Ernie Els, the winner of three Major tournaments, accepted with his usual grace that there might just be someone other than himself deserving a great prize of his sport, in this case the Masters Green Jacket, there was some behaviour of a rather different order.

It came from Sergio Garcia, an extremely talented but worryingly immature young golfer who has yet to reach any of the great peaks of the game. As Els and his conqueror, Phil Mickelson, fought out one of the most thrilling, and beautifully played, finishes in 68 years of golf action at Augusta National, Garcia was wheeled out into the spotlight on the strength of a brilliantly executed but competitively irrelevant last round of 66.

Garcia caused quite a stir of sentimental enthusiasm here in America a few years ago when he played an extraordinary shot from the base of a tree and ran boyishly to the brow of the fairway, leaping to see where his ball had landed. Already wearying of the domination of young Tiger Woods, many Americans thought this extremely charming, though the old pro Fred Couples did later produce a cruelly hilarious parody.

Some also believed they saw an authentic challenger to the Tiger. Garcia is 24 now - three years older than Woods when he won the first of his eight majors - and unfortunately he is still the little boy running up the hill. Even more depressingly, when he gets to the top, his personality appears to have regressed all the way back to an over-stocked playpen.

When he came into the room where Els would later generously acknowledge the nerve and touch of Mickelson's first major title win in 47 attempts, Garcia was asked if something he had perhaps read in the past few days had upset him, and maybe explained the expression you normally see on the face of some kid who has just been denied a second ice cream before lunch.

"No, you know it's been going on for a while," Garcia said. "It's OK. You guys [golf writers], that's the way you are. When we're playing well, we're the best, and even if we're playing well and things are not going well, we can be shocking. So it's nice to see how fair you guys are, and I just hope you guys don't come out saying, 'Oh, you know, he's back, and this is the Sergio we know and all that'."

At least he wasn't disappointed in that last hope. Said one television commentator to the nation. "Sergio is apparently upset that Tiger Woods gets all the attention. Maybe he should understand that it is what happens when you win a few majors - like, eight."

To be fair to Garcia, he is only 24. Colin Montgomerie, the holder of the the all-time petulance award, is heading for his 41st birthday and still showing little evidence that he understands there is a whole world going on outside of his own head. Montgomerie stormed off the course after failing to beat the cut, quite forgetting that his wife needed a lift home. Young Garcia thus elected himself to a school of behaviour which is most commonly associated with large talent, even larger egos and, sadly, an absolute failure to understand that winning is a product of character and discipline and not a God-given right.

Few top-flight performers in any area of sport seemed to understand this quite as well as the big man Els. Before the tournament, he talked with respect, but also realism, about Woods's current failure to intimidate and diminish all opponents as he once did. He said that he believed he could win this Masters; that he had the technique and the hard-won experience to do it on his own terms. That he came so close, without ever touching the kind of rhythm he can produce at his best, and which reminds you all over again of the inherent beauty of the game, is surely the most bitter blow of his career thus far.

Privately, he admitted he was devastated. Publicly, he said: "I played well. I'm going to look myself in the mirror tonight and say, 'well done'. It's one of those things. That is golf. I've had some good wins and I've had some tough losses, and this is one of the tough losses. You win some, you lose some.

"Well, I gave it my best shot. I gave it my absolute best, especially today. I'm very disappointed now, but I know I'll get over it. Truly, I feel I will win a major this year. I would have loved to have won this one. I'm chasing that little Grand Slam a little bit in my mind this year, but I'm sure I'll get myself into position to have another shot if I keep practising, keep healthy, keep at it.

"The point now is that Phil deserved this one. He won this one. He didn't lose it like some of his other ones. You have to give all the credit to him. In the end that is all there is to say."

Els ate an apple while Mickelson marched up the last fairway with the dopey, permanent grin on his face that said this time he knew a big one was his. An apple may keep the doctor away but like some of the best of Els's game, it was powerless to delay Mickelson's moment of triumph.

It was one of the best of the Masters, Mickelson's courageous last-green birdie matching those of Arnold Palmer, Sandy Lyle and Mark O'Meara. It had all of the eruption of the holes-in-one by Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett compressed into 10 minutes; it had the last last hurrah of Palmer - whose slow progress was apparently one of the sources of Montgomerie's irritation, which was a bit like a road hog complaining about the slow progress of an ancient Juan Manuel Fangio - and the excellent showing of two temperamentally solid young Englishmen, Paul Casey and Justin Rose.

More than anything, though, it had the reminder that golf is both a game of the mind and the heart. On this occasion the mind of Phil Mickelson held sway. Next time it could the one owned by Ernie Els. In the meantime, all of golf - and sport - should rejoice in the continued soundness of his heart.

Nicklaus dismisses talk of Tiger in crisis

This week Tiger Woods checks into the Fort Bragg army post in North Carolina. He is going to "toughen up" against a background of fears that his golf empire is beginning to crumble. It is, however, a concern that has just been demolished by the only man still considered a threat to the Tiger's chances of establishing himself as the greatest golfer of all time.

Jack Nicklaus, who despite the ownership of a body aged 64 came within two shots of beating the cut here last week, says, "You know, a lot of worries about Tiger are misplaced. He is too good a player to stop winning. I expect him to win another major pretty soon."

That would take Woods to nine majors, or halfway to Nicklaus's 18 - a haul which was completed in Augusta when he was 46, 18 years older than Tiger is today.

Nicklaus's endorsement should be encouragement to a player who insists that he is just a notch or two away from his old powers. But even more encouraging is a brief analysis of Nicklaus's relentless annexation of major titles. Nicklaus won his first aged 22; Woods was 21. Nicklaus experienced a three-year lull between his seventh and eighth titles, the US Opens and the Opens of 1967 and 1970. Nicklaus was 27 when the pause started, 30 when it ended. He went 11 majors without a victory. Woods, who is 28, has gone a mere seven. That gives him a golfing year to stay ahead of the footprints of the "Golden Bear".

"I'm still here," Tiger told one prospective obituary writer when he shot 69 in the second round on Friday. Golf history, and the man who wrote its most significant pages, agree.