James Lawton: Shot from heaven seals it for America's country-club hero

Mickelson hugged his wife Amy, who is recovering from breast cancer, for 35 seconds
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The Independent Online

Phil Mickelson was touching what many believed were the limits of golfing sanity when the 74th Masters came to a moment of draining decision here last night. But he thought he knew better - and he did. He thought he was touching his third Masters title.

With Mickelson you can never be sure whether these are the promptings of genius or a familiar touch of madness. However, three Green Jackets would seem to remove the need for the men in the white coats and that certainly had to be the conclusion last night as a whole series of challengers, from Britain's Lee Westwood to the rehabilitating Tiger Woods, dwindled under the force of Mickelson's blazing optimism.

The man from California, the ageing but still darling All-American boy of his golfing nation however far he lags behind the achievements of Woods, stood between two great pine trees and examined the lie of his ball and the odds against him making anything more valuable than a catastrophe of his second shot on the par-five 13th hole.

Heaven knows he is no stranger to the consequences of excessive boldness, but once again he concluded that it was better to live, however precariously, on his feet than die on his knees. As someone said here the other day, presumably when Mickelson was listening, you can lay up in hazardous situations as long as you like when you are dead.

So Mickelson squinted at the ball laying on a carpet of pine shavings, and the narrow creek of water separating it from the 13th green and blazed at the flag. The ball landed 10ft from the pin and if Mickelson couldn't make still another of the barrage of eagles which so lifted the excitement levels here during Saturday's third round, he could do the next best thing. He made birdie and, for the first time in the day, opened up a two-shot lead over Westwood.

Though he still had to steer home a putt from five feet, a distance he has never been mad about, to maintain that advantage on the 17th hole, effectively, the battle for the Masters was over. It had been one of the most spectacular and intriguing ones of the modern golf era - and Mickelson had again established his credentials as the maverick spirit who knows best how to effect the heartbeat of middle class, country club America.

It also signalled to Woods, the man who has dominated so much of his career, with 14 major titles against Mickelson's own new total of four, that one of his most outrageous ambitions could not be fulfilled.

He couldn't just walk in from the wilderness of five months of trying to shore up his life, and deal with perhaps the most humiliating personal crisis ever to threaten to consume one of the world's greatest sportsmen, and reclaim his old mantle as the man everyone has to beat in every tournament at which he appears.

Of course the Tiger's achievement here was stunning. His 144 days of exile had inevitably taken away much of his rhythm, and even his basic confidence in the matters of chipping and driving was at times under terrible pressure. However, 11-under par over four days of unrelenting examination has to be seen as a triumph of will - and a serious statement about the future, especially with two of his favourite courses, Pebble Beach and St Andrews, appearing next on this year's major tournament schedule.

Still, it has to be allowed that the man who has lived under his shadow for so long, Mickelson, is undoubtedly capable of extraordinarily charismatic golf - and he may grow a little more with this latest triumph.

His march to victory over the last two rounds was stunning. Certainly nothing in his form this season, and least of all a particularly erratic performance in the last tournament in Houston, indicated that he was capable of the pyrotechnics which so riveted America on Saturday.

Rounds of 67, 71 and 67 left him at Westwood's shoulder in the last pairing yesterday and the widest belief here was that the one-stroke lead of England's man striding along the redemption road could easily be consumed as early as the par-five second hole. That didn't begin to happen but in the end Mickelson was home by three strokes with a round of 67.

Yet if Mickelson has so often offered the stars, he also has a fault line that can crack open at any moment.

The most deflating example of this came at Winged Foot, New York, four years ago when his chance of winning a third straight major - and something to finally persuade Woods that at last he might have a serious challenger - disintegrated in a burst of tragic comedy. Needing just a par to win, he picked out his driver despite having hit only two of the previous 13 fairways. After hooking into a rubbish container, he got a free drop and the chance to play at least one more degree safely. Instead, he elected to smash his way to the green rather than chip his way back on to the fairway and almost certainly ensure a place in a play-off. It was another reason for America to love him - and a little bit more self-hate when the gamble lurched into disaster.

Later, Mickelson shook his head and declared, "I'm still in shock that I did that. I'm such an idiot."

He is also, of course, a serial player of mesmerising shots and if the most fragile of him was visible in his denouement at the US Open, the best of him has tended to blaze forth here among the azaleas and the dogwoods.

It was here in 2004 where he shook away the least desired title among the world's most gifted players, the one that announces you are the best never to have won a major, and it was here this weekend that he came closest to defining his competitive personality.

You can say it is a little wild, a little crazy, but it worked so beautifully that when his wife Amy, recovering from a battle with breast cancer, hugged him for 35 seconds, she was also representing much of America.

Meanwhile, the Tiger hugged the shadows and resolved, with some reasonable confidence, to come back again with more deadly effect.