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THE MASTERS

Showhow it just fits

A pink ribbon that is stronger than steel

April 12, 2010|BILL PLASCHKE

AUGUSTA, GA. — He was surrounded by deep green, he was covered in thick black, but I couldn't stop looking at the living pink.

On the side of Phil Mickelson's cap Sunday, there was a decal of a pink ribbon, the international symbol of breast-cancer awareness.

Through Augusta National's thick spring air, it glowed. Through the 74th Masters' weighty final round, it rocked.

It sat atop Mickelson's head but played from his heart, his personal fight fueling his public battle, the pink pushing him past the coolness of Lee Westwood, the bluster of Tiger Woods, the charges from every corner, finally dropping him into the arms of his wife, Amy.

Together, in afternoon shadows that felt like dawn, they tearfully hugged in celebration of a Masters victory that wrapped the sports world in a jacket of life.

"I don't know if we said anything," Mickelson said. "We just hugged."

Ah, but they said everything, a husband hugging his cancer-stricken wife, standing next to his cancer-stricken mother, after a winning a tournament that everyone thought cancer wouldn't let him win.

Mickelson came from one stroke back to shoot a final-round 67 and win the Masters by three strokes while making a week's worth of sleazy turmoil disappear, and if it sounds like I'm cheering, I am.

He showed up this week with one top-10 finish in seven tournaments this season. He showed up thin and drawn from handling the breast-cancer treatments for his wife and mother. Then, after three draining rounds, he was up late Saturday night after his oldest daughter suffered a broken wrist while roller skating.

There is no way that he should have won. But then, as the week progressed, it became clear that he had to win.

With the tournament dominated by Woods' comeback from his five-month sex-scandal exile, the Masters desperately needed someone who, even in the toughest of times, considered his wife a treasure and his family an inspiration.

Having had its soul stained, the sport needed a heart tug, and Mickelson was it, from the moment he admitted this would be the first tournament attended by family since last May to the moment he choked up while thanking them in his victory speech.

"I really want to recognize my family," he said during the victory ceremony, his words filling emptying Augusta National like a cool breeze.

"My wife . . . we've been through a lot this year . . . it means a lot to share some joy together. . . . This has been such an incredible week, an emotional week; to cap it off like this, I can't put into words, but it's something we'll share the rest of our lives."

Amy, suffering from side effects from the cancer medications, did not show up until he was on the final hole, waiting for him behind the 18th green, her first appearance at a golf course in nearly a year. After Mickelson dumped a birdie putt to clinch the final margin, they hugged, then held hands as they walked through a tunnel of fans and media.

"It's good to see you," she said to the crowd, her eyes hidden behind giant sunglasses, yet her blond hair and striking features seemingly untouched by the disease.

For a moment Sunday, it appeared the victory embrace would not happen.

Mickelson entered the day trailing Westwood by one stroke, and then he blew an early chance on the third hole when his makable birdie putt suddenly jumped to the left.

As Mickelson was in his backswing, a bud fell directly into his line from a nearby tree, and the ball bounced off the bud.

"At that point, you've got to question, is something out to get me today?" Mickelson said, smiling.

Turns out, there was, but that something appeared to be destiny, with Mickelson's short game giving him a two-stroke lead on the 13th, when he landed his tee shot in the wood chips between two pine trees.

Instead of gently punching out, Mickelson decided to go between the trees and directly for the green, which was about 200 yards away.

It was crazy. But it was Mickelson, and it was perfect, as he used a six-iron to put the ball within three feet of the hole, and he was never truly challenged again.

"The gap . . . wasn't huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through," he said.

Give him an inch, he'll take a tournament, even from the great Tiger Woods, who made a brief run with an eagle on both the front nine and the back nine. But amid his usual cursing -- he publicly blamed Jesus Christ for one bad shot -- Woods was just not sharp enough and eventually folded.

But in the end, amazingly, this wasn't about Woods. This wasn't about the guy who had threatened to make this one of golf's darkest weeks. This was about the guy who redecorated the place, Mickelson's greatest triumph coming in beating the sleaze, stopping the gossip, painting the ultimate old-boy sport at the ultimate old-boy club in a brilliant shade of pink.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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