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Mickelson Seizes the Moment

AUGUSTA, Ga. - As the shadows grew larger off the majestic Georgia pines Sunday and the tension grew hotter in the first major championship of the season, the ultimate thrill-seeker in golf was facing a decision.

Dressed in black, the man who doesn't do dull or play safe was holding a one-shot lead and standing on pine straw just off the 13th fairway. Two trees stood in front of him, the menacing Rae's Creek was in the distance, and 207 yards of Augusta National Golf Club's most pristine real estate were between him and the hole.

"I'm going for it," Phil Mickelson told his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay.

With one fearless swat of a 6-iron, the ball took a perfect trajectory through and over the trouble, landing just over the water and coming to rest 4 feet from the hole. Although Mickelson missed the putt for eagle, he made the comebacker for birdie to take a two-shot lead - and assume control of a 74th Masters championship that was wrapped in drama and intriguing story lines.

The week began dominated by the return of Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1-ranked player who had taken nearly five months off while dealing with reputation-damaging reports of extramarital affairs. Woods was competitive but rusty and finished tied for fourth, five shots behind Mickelson.

Then there was Lee Westwood, the Englishman who for the third consecutive major came close to winning, but did not. He wound up in second, three shots behind Mickelson. Sunday's round also was marked by the exciting play of 24-year-old Anthony Kim, whose late charge to a third-place finish offered a glimpse of what he could become. There was the quietly solid play of veteran K.J. Choi, who tied with Woods, and the march of Fred Couples, 50, who was trying to become the oldest player to win a major.

But in the end, it was Mickelson - and the most heartwarming story line of all - on top.

Soon after he hit an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to clinch his third Masters championship, Mickelson was in a long, tearful embrace with his wife, Amy, who is battling breast cancer, and their three children.

Also getting a hug was Mickelson's mother, Mary, who also is undergoing breast cancer treatment.

"It's been an emotional year, and I'm very proud of my wife and the fight and struggle she's been through, and it's been a difficult year, and to come out on top in this tournament is very emotional," Mickelson - the only player not to have a bogey Sunday - said after claiming his fourth major championship title.

"I don't normally shed tears over wins, and when Amy and I hugged off 18, that was a very emotional moment for us and something that I'll look back on and just cherish," he said. "I'll cherish every moment of this week. This has been a very special week."

Later, a laughing Mickelson said that on his make-or-break shot on the 13th hole, "the gap (between the trees) wasn't huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through.

"I just felt like, at that time, I needed to trust my swing and hit a shot, and it came off perfect."

Mickelson's final-round 67 capped a week of eye-popping shots, ear-splitting roars and tantalizing twists and turns.

He finished at 16-under-par 272, three shots ahead of playing partner Westwood and four shots better than Kim, whose 65 was tied for the low round of the week and whose 31 on the final nine holes sent a scare up on the leaderboard.

Woods, who returned to the public stage and competitive golf after the single-car accident last November that set off revelations of his extramarital affairs, showed flashes of brilliance during his four days in contention.

However, he wasn't consistent enough to threaten the leaders Sunday.

"I only enter events to win, and I didn't get it done," said Woods, a four-time Masters champion who added he doesn't know when he'll play again.

"I didn't hit the ball good enough and I made too many mistakes around the greens. Consequently, I'm not there."

Westwood, who was trying to become the first Masters champion from England since Nick Faldo in 1996, tipped his cap to Mickelson after the round.

"Phil being the champion he is, hit some great shots coming down the stretch there," Westwood said, once a promising golfer who fell to as low as 266th in the world before rising to be among the world's best.

"We both struggled off the tee early on. His second shot into 13 was incredible, and then he just played solid coming in. He's been through hard times recently, and he deserves a break or two."

'It just feels incredible'

Mickelson, who turns 40 in June, joins Faldo, Gary Player, Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead as three-time winners at Augusta, and trails only Woods (four), Arnold Palmer (four) and Jack Nicklaus (six) in the number of green jackets won.

It was Mickelson's first major triumph since his meltdown in the 2006 U.S. Open, when he made a double-bogey on the final hole to lose by one shot. The collapse has gnawed at him.

Heading into the Masters, Mickelson had been saying his game was close to being in winning form. Through seven tournaments, however, he struggled with varying aspects of his game, registering one top-10 finish and four outside the top 20.

After winning four times worldwide last year, he arrived at Augusta National without a victory for the first time since 2003.

But two days into the week, he arrived at his rented home near the golf course and found what was missing: For the first time in 11 months, his family had made a trip and was waiting for him at the end of a day's work.

It was the first time Amy and the three children - Amanda, 10, Sophia, 8, and Evan, 7 - had been with Mickelson at an event since last year's Players Championship, which was one week after news of Amy's illness broke.

Her long-term prognosis is good, Mickelson said, but for now she is dealing with difficulties resulting from the medications she has to take.

"To have Amy and my kids here to share it with, I can't put into words," Mickelson said. "It just feels incredible, especially given what we've been through. To be able to share this kind of joy means a lot to us."

Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, said his pupil's spirits were immediately lifted when he saw his family.

"Amy has always been his biggest supporter," Harmon said. "They talk about the round, go over each shot. That's been a very relaxing time for him, because I could tell when he got to the course that he was ready to go.

"It was a huge factor. There was a sense of normalcy."

A whirlwind week

Nothing was normal over the past week at one of the most revered private golf courses in the world.

Starting with Woods' arrival on Easter Sunday, the buzz in the air was as thick as the pollen that was falling from the trees.

The whirlwind week included the dramatic news conference by Woods on Monday, a stinging rebuke of Woods by Augusta National and Masters chairman Billy Payne on Wednesday, admiring galleries on the ground who greeted Woods warmly, and a taunting airplane overhead that carried two banners with messages that played off Woods' sex scandal.

Then Saturday, Mickelson ignited his charge with a memorable three-hole stretch of golf.

He made back-to-back eagles at holes 13 and 14, becoming just the third player in Masters history to record back-to-back eagles. Mickelson then came within inches of becoming the only player to make three consecutive eagles in the Masters when his shot from 89 yards on the 15th hole ended up inches away from the hole.

"One of the things I've been saying this week is that I am very relaxed here at Augusta National because you don't have to be perfect," Mickelson said. "You can make bad swings and salvage par. That's why I feel so comfortable here and I'm relaxed when I drive down Magnolia Lane because I know that I don't have to play perfect golf.

"But it was a pretty darn good ending, huh?"

Perfect, you might say.

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