The ball was nestled in loose pine straw to the right of the 13th fairway at Augusta National, a pair of Georgia pines blocking a daunting view of the flag tucked behind Rae’s Creek, 207 yards away.
What some might consider a dilemma, Phil Mickelson saw as opportunity.
Jim “Bones” Mackay, who has caddied for Mickelson the better part of two decades, sized up the situation quickly and knew the plan even before his boss spoke.
“Once I got to the ball, I knew he was going for it,” Mackay said. “From past experience.”
With one swing, Mickelson hit a spectacular-looking shot through a gap in the trees, just far enough to clear the winding creek and plop down next to the flag, setting off a ground- shaking cheer that defines the back nine Sunday at the Masters.
That shot immediately became part of Masters lore. Mickelson’s shot last year didn’t win the Masters, though.
What gets lost is that he missed the 4-foot eagle putt. He wound up with the same score on that hole as Lee Westwood, who laid up from the trees and made birdie.
But that doesn’t matter.
For Mickelson, golf always has been more about the journey than the destination.
“Not too many people could have played that shot – probably only Phil, to be honest,” Ernie Els said. “He’s just kind of a magician, the best at times. And around there, he’s just unbelievable.”
This time, Mickelson arrived at his destination safely.
The shot was cool, even by Mickelson’s standards. But the special memory for him last year was walking off the 18th green and into the arms of his wife, Amy, who was at a golf course for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year earlier.
The final birdie putt gave Mickelson a three-shot victory, the largest of his three wins at Augusta National.
It will be hard for anyone this year at Augusta to walk past that stand of Georgia Pines without stopping to take a look.
That’s what U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein did during a practice round. Like most others, he was curious to see what Mickelson faced, or even what Mickelson was thinking.
“It’s an aggressive shot,” Uihlein said with a grin. “I just looked at it. It’s an unbelievable shot. There’s just no question.”
After his first Masters victory in 2004, Mickelson went back to the spot on the 18th green where he holed an 18-foot birdie putt for his first major championship.
He expects to do the same on No. 13.
“I very well may go to that spot because that’s an important spot, an important shot for the tournament last year,” he said. “And I will look at that. However, I do plan on hitting the fairway all four days.”
Mickelson has never been afraid to take on any shot, no matter the circumstances. The television angle made it look as though he could touch the trees without moving, although he had a full swing.
Laying up was never an option.
“I was going to have to go through that gap if I laid up or went for the green,” Mickelson said. “That gap was a little bit wider – it wasn’t huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through.”
The space between the trees wasn’t what alarmed his caddie. It was the pine straw.
“I was worried he could lose his footing,” Mackay said.
Mackay usually brings the conservative voice to a risk-reward situation, and while he knew Mickelson had already made up his mind, he pointed out what happened the day before, when Mickelson nearly holed a wedge on the 15th in his quest for three straight eagles.
“I knew he was going to go, but if he wanted to lay up, he’s as good as anyone from 80 yards,” Mackay said.
After that, it was only a matter of 5-iron or 6-iron.
“It was probably the shot of the year last year, under the circumstances and taking everything into account,” Westwood said. “I knew he’d fancy having a go at it, and that’s Phil’s personality and game. He’s that kind of player.”