Phil Mickelson Wasn't the Only Winner at Masters

The final day of the Masters golf tournament concluded with Phil Mickelson winning his third green jacket in a sweet and sentimental ending to a four day mini-series of back stories and sub-plots worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. Phil held onto his wife Amy, a breast cancer survivor, after he walked off the final green — and it seemed he might never let go.

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A couple hours earlier, he hit a shot on the 13th hole that seemed destined to define the year: off of pine straw, in between two trees, over a creek, onto the thinnest portion of the green, a few feet from the pin. It was swashbuckling, heroic, inspiring. Then he missed the putt for eagle. Perhaps, in retrospect, that does define the year, in golf and in America.

Don’t get me wrong. While I once carried a 3 handicap, the difference between my level of achievement and that of a pro is just under the distance between where the Earth rotates around the sun and Proxima Centauri, our next nearest star. I’m not being in the least bit critical or cynical.

Instead, I watched with awe and admiration from the centerfield bleachers as guys with amazing skills did sparkling things that I can see with the naked eye, but never could quite touch, except rarely.  Yet this Masters tournament was not just about amazing shots, of which there were many. It was about stumbling and recovering. It was about fending off trials and tribulations, overcoming obstacles and fears, staring down challenges, embracing decency and in many ways, it was about healing.

The tournament started on Thursday with ceremonial tee shots from 80-year-old Arnold Palmer and 70-year-old Jack Nicklaus.  If one was looking for symbolism, two of the greatest golfers of all time began the 2010 Masters with a bow toward genteel manners and a hearty dose of respect for the traditions of the game. If the message was not intentional, it was still emphatic.  Golf strives to be different in one defining characteristic: the players are on the honor system; they are to call penalties on themselves.  They are to uphold the unspoken agreement that etiquette matters.  Behavior matters. Setting an example matters.

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By now, the saga of Tiger and his infidelities are more than common knowledge. They were the stuff of weekly tabloid articles and late-night comedian monologues. Less well known globally, but no less  significant, Phil has endured a year where his wife and his mother were diagnosed with breast cancer some six weeks apart.

Professional golf on courses as difficult as Augusta National requires fierce concentration. Playing with mental distractions while chopping it around your local municipal course would add ten shots to a typical amateur’s   game.  Both Phil and Tiger had to fend off life’s kicks and punches and still try to carve out a victory in the first of professional golf’s four major championships of the year (the other three are the US Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship).

Some folks are going to say that Tiger was ducking punches of his own making. Fair enough. But still the crowd didn’t root against him. Golf as an industry was taking a hit while Tiger was absent. Golf as a tradition, as a code of honor, would allow redemption, it appears. But on its terms. He tried, it was apparent. He smiled more. He waved more. He swore a couple of times. It was not going to be easy, this redemption stuff.  To make matters more intriguing, Phil was climbing to the top of the leaderboard. Tiger and Phil have always had an uneasy relationship.

In his golf game, Tiger has been the model of discipline. The greatest criticism of Phil’s golf game is the wild streak that is always at the ready and causes some unfortunate outcomes at the most inopportune times. In their private lives, all appearances have been to the contrary. So much for golf imitating life.

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And Tiger brought out on Sunday a very rare sight: he had his “D” game. He flailed and chopped and hammered it around the course — and shot a 69.  This is like spilling soda on your keyboard and while wiping it with a paper towel, you pen the original If, beating Rudyard Kipling to the punch.

The other players were not playing cameo roles, either. One didn’t root against Lee Westwood,  a gentle man and a gentleman.  He had completely lost his ability to control the flight of his golf ball just a couple of years earlier and then regained his form.  He has yet to win a major, but he never lost his dignity or grace. Nor did one root against K.J. Choi, a steely man who seemed destined not to crumble, trying mightily to win his first major as well. Fred Couples was a great story all week, and at 50-years-old, his ability to hang in there was a feelgood story at a time when golf and America could use one.

As the day wore on, it was the recovery shots that were the most revealing. It was  getting into trouble and finding a way to survive another hole that marked the day. It was the clutch putts when you absolutely, positively had to have one that made the difference. It wasn’t about hope.  It was about doing.

Every one of those guys was able to overcome the kicks and punches. On this day, Phil was able to do it the best.

We continue to hope and pray for Amy and Mary Mickelson as well as Phil and Amy’s kids. We continue to wish the best for Tiger’s wife Elin and their kids. We hope that everyone plays well and that honor, tradition, etiquette, manners, goodness and decency prevail.

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I believe golf won this week. I believe Tom Watson at 60 showed us something. That Fred Couples at 50 showed us something.  That Jack Nicklaus at 70 showed us something. That Arnold Palmer at 80 showed us something. Sometimes we are the masters over life and sometimes we are her servants. The grace we show in either event, in the end, is what truly matters. Honor matters.

If we remember that, we can begin the healing process.

And I think Proxima Centauri just winked at us.

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