Phil Mickelson Credit Pic LIVgolf

AUGUSTA, Ga. – For two decades, Phil Mickelson fought bravely – or perhaps jokingly – against the notion that he has no hops. From his perspective, the photograph that captured his unbridled joy of winning his first Masters while also shedding the label of best player without a major has serious timing issues.

Mickelson’s leap into the air after sinking an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole in 2004 is one of the famous celebrations in Augusta National. The image of that moment, however, soon turned infamous, as it appeared to show him mere inches above the putting surface. Observers seemed to enjoy questioning his athletic prowess beyond the incredible skills he displays with a golf club in his hands.

Never mind that the silhouette of his jump eventually became Mickelson’s personal logo. Taken as a whole, the photo became a funny/sore spot. It also gave ammunition to anyone hoping to return fire whenever the trash talking heated up.

Last week, the topic of that photo again came up for discussion while Mickelson was seated next to fellow multiple Masters winner Bubba Watson during a pre-tournament press conference at LIV Golf Miami.

“First of all, the photographer did not get me at the apex and didn’t do it justice,” Mickelson argued.

Watson did his best to back up the claim, suggesting that it was “the slopes” at Augusta National that were not factored into the photo.

But then Mickelson came clean.

“I thought that for 20 years and tried to recreate and I thought, well, maybe he did get me at the apex,” he said.

Apex or flat, that’s not really the takeaway Mickelson has when thinking back at that moment 20 years ago. A few months earlier, his grandfather Al Santos had passed away at the age of 97, and the family’s legacy in golf certainly goes through him

Santos was one of the original caddies when Pebble Beach opened in 1991. His usual pay was 35 cents a round, but a golfer once paid him with a silver dollar, which Santos kept instead of spending. He eventually gifted the coin to his grandson and also offered a prediction – the 2004 Masters would be his breakthrough major victory.

Mickelson used the coin to mark his ball for the first time that week at Augusta National, and the prediction came true, that final putt making one last roll to drop into the cup. In telling the story recently, Mickelson remains just as emotional as he was that day of the leap.

“I’m getting chills thinking about it now because I think about him every time that I see that putt, and I think that he gave that ball a little nudge in,” Mickelson said.

The 2004 Masters victory was equal parts joy and relief for Mickelson. When he arrived that week at Augusta National, he was in his 13th year as a professional golfer and already had 22 wins on the PGA Tour but had yet to break through with a victory in his first 46 major starts.

Sure, there were plenty of close calls – runner-up finishes at the 1999 and 2002 U.S. Opens and the 2001 PGA Championship, along with 14 other top-10 finishes. In fact, he had finished solo third in the previous Masters going into 2004.

He was 33, though, and yet to reach golf’s ultimate heights. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods was five years younger and already had eight major wins, including his Tiger Slam from 2000-01. How many realistic opportunities would be left for Mickelson to win?

But if a journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step, Mickelson figured once he broke through with one win, others would follow. To be more specific in his case, five more.

“I had said for a while going in that once I win one, I’ll win a bunch,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know if six is a bunch but it’s more than one – and that win validated kind of what I was doing as being right.

“I just wasn’t quite putting it together those weeks. I was making a few too many mistakes, but I still needed to play the same way. I needed to be true to myself and the way I play, but I also needed to be more strategic at times. And so that win there was a relief, and it gave me a lot of confidence that I could do this more often.”

Mickelson needing a confidence booster? That seems like a foreign concept now. Six majors, 57 professional wins, a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame – his legacy in the game is secure, and it continues to grow as one of the leading proponents of LIV Golf, which he joined as an original member in 2022 to become captain of HyFlyers GC.

His most recent professional victory came in 2021, and it may be his greatest achievement, winning the PGA Championship at age 50 to become the older winner of a major.

Although he’s struggled for results in LIV Golf, he doesn’t think he’s done winning. A year ago at Augusta National, he closed with a 7-under 65 to tie for second behind Jon Rahm. It was the lowest round and highest finish by any player 50 or older in the Masters.

He enters this year’s major season with high hopes. Augusta National, of course, brings out the best in him with three wins. But he’s also had close calls at the other three major venues.

At Valhalla, site of the PGA Championship, he finished second to Rory McIlroy in 2014. At Pinehurst No. 2, site of the U.S. Open, he finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999. And at Royal Troon, site of the Open Championship, he finished second to fellow LIV golfer Henrik Stenson in a sensational weekend duel.

“I can’t wait for the next four months,” Mickelson said.

This week, of course, the focus is on Augusta. Thursday’s opening round will be his 115th round of his Masters career. It will be his 31st career start, tying Fuzzy Zoeller for 22nd on the all-time list. Few know the course better than Mickelson, and certainly no left-handed golfer knows it better.

“I obviously love the place,” he said. “It’s a course where I feel I don’t have to be perfect.”

Perhaps Mickelson didn’t achieve perfection with the height of his leap 20 years ago. But he did win, opening the floodgates for more majors. The memory of his grandfather will again be with him the rest of the week at Augusta National, only this time it won’t require a photograph.

*Credit Information www.livgolf.com written by Mike McAllister