One look at Phil Mickelson on the 13th hole of Augusta National Golf Club Sunday afternoon told the story: Lefty was hoping, no demanding, to lose the moniker as "Best Player to have never won a Major Championship."
The smile on his face wasn't painted, wasn't pre-planned. He genuinely appeared to be enjoying himself...even after having given up his lead.
Mickelson had been dogged by that "Never Won" phrase for years. He had piled up 22 PGA Tour victories prior to The Masters, including one in the prestigious Tour Championshp. Yet detractors claimed he simply couldn't win the big one. A Major Championship. Therefore, he wasn't a true champion.
Yes, it was true that along the winding road of his career he had competed in 42 majors without a win. But he had knocked on the door. He had gotten into position. He had been close to the Holy Grail. The golf gods opened the door, just didn't let him enter...yet.
That changed with his gritty, gutsy performance last weekend when his game made the ultimate statement: Take that golf world. I am a Major Champion.
Mickelson finished with a sparkling 31 over the trecherous back nine at Augusta National, closing with a slip-sliding birdie putt on the final hole to secure his victory and nuke any and all criticism of his multifaceted, talented game.
And his smile --- throughout the back nine, not after it --- told it all. Here is was, as many as 3 strokes behind leader Ernie Els, yet he was walking the walk of a champion. It was as if someone had slipped him tomorrow's headlines a day early. He just knew or believed he was somehow, someway, will his way to victory.
Gone were the thoughts of the runner-up finishes, to Tiger at the 2002 Masters, to David Toms at the 2001 PGA and to his friend Payne Stewart at the 1999 United States Open. They were replaced by a solid confidence in his game, buoyed by the maturity of being in contention at a Major before and knowing he had the talent, the game and the determination to emerge victorious.
Ultimately he might not win. Things happen on a golf course. But he believed he could. He could stare down adversity, he could beat back the demons. The sheepish smile was retained as he closed to withing two shots, then one and then while knotted with Els for the lead.
His 3-wood drive on 18 split the fairway, and his 8 iron shot nestled 18 feet above the cup. He knew what he had to do, and with one magnificent putt dispelled all thoughts that he couldn't win a Major Championship.
Donning the Green Jacket, Mickelson exorcised the demons and passed on the baton of the best player who hasn't won a Major to a dozen or so excellent golfers who should never have to live with that anchor.
It might have taken a wee bit longer than the prognosticator's predicted but there had never been a doubt that Lefty was one of the game's best players. Now he can simply go out and play without having to deal with the baggage and the detractors.
Smiling all the way.