Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

James Lawton: Mickelson and Watson are home fans' heroes in Masters' compelling concluding act

We had no Tiger and no Rory, no anguished Othello or young Hamlet still agonising over the question of whether to be or not to be on this particular occasion, but there was Louis Oosthuizen and his shot that will never be forgotten as long as golf is played.

There was also a good ol' boy from the Florida panhandle named Bubba Watson and that made a most compelling cast of two as they went into the dusk for their play-off. Watson won, which seemed a rather arbitrary phrase at the end of a day of such mesmerising action.



But then even before the South African's albatross on the second hole, something which threatened to shake the game at least as profoundly as the one performed by Gene Sarazen on the 15th here back in 1935, no-one could say that the 76th Masters had fallen short of its potential for a last day of high drama – and fine quality – here yesterday.



Indeed, when Oosthuizen and Watson, who sometimes looks as if he might be more comfortable strumming a banjo but always retains the ability to play brilliant golf shots, went hand to hand along the 18th hole it was the final evidence that we had one of the great tournaments.



At least half a dozen intriguing sub-plots had made claims for attention yet always at their heart, it seemed, would be a classic collision of style and competitive nature, a story of flamboyant but deep-seated ambition set against one of those golfing philosophies apparently proofed against the most draining effects of pressure.



Put another way, it was Phil Mickelson, the hero of every red-blooded member of an American country club, against Oosthuizen, the 29-year-old who two years ago laid waste to the pick of the world game to win the Open at St Andrews.



Both were at or near the pinnacles of their game when they tracked the laconic Swede Peter Hanson, who for one day at least had been a man with fire in his veins and his clubs.



Hanson's brilliant 65 on Saturday put him one shot in front of Mickelson and two beyond Oosthuizen, whose chilling efficiency faltered only on the last hole of the third day.



Hanson agreed that a tranquil night's sleep before the last round was out of the question. "You only have to look at the leaderboard to realise what you are up against – I can only be thankful that I have put myself in a position to compete at this level at this place."



Many experts agreed that if Hanson had been brilliant, if he had gone for every shot as though he had the hot Iberian blood of Seve Ballesteros rather than the iced version normally distributed in Scandinavia, he was still in grave risk from a pincer movement involving not so much rivals from different continents but separate planets.



The fact was that if Oosthuizen had surrendered a little ground on the 18th hole, he had mostly reminded a rapt audience of the kind of control he produced at St Andrews, when one by one the men who headed the world rankings were required to surrender to his fierce will and immaculate consistency.



Indeed, it may not have been coincidence that in the wake of the third round over-achievement of men like Oosthuizen, the world No 1 Luke Donald and the perennial major casualty Sergio Garcia brought into the open, more or less for the first time, their growing concern over their own milk-and-water contributions at this level.



Oosthuizen, whose previous three visits here all ended in a failure to beat the cut, admitted that he had brought his most concentrated head to the current tournament.



"I proved to myself that I could compete with the best players when I won at St Andrews and coming here this time I was able to prepare properly without any injury issues and I was determined to make a bigger impact."



That happened quite stunningly when the 260-yard albatross flew home so beautifully and a great roar rolled through the pines. Mickelson, by way of the bleakest comparison, was approaching disaster. While Oosthuizen saved par with fine nerve on the third and sixth holes, having given one back from the albatross bounty on the fourth, Mickelson dropped three strokes after his tee-shot hit a stand and bounced into the undergrowth off the fourth.



That left him four shots behind Oosthuizen, whose blemish on the 18th the previous night was brought back to mind with some edgy moments after the huge break on the second.



Still, his 69 on the third day continued to represent a superb body of precision work and surely fuelled his best hopes of hanging on for his second major.



On Saturday he hit 15 greens and 12 of 14 fairways. "It was just great out there with all those roars all over the place," he reflected. "I'm expecting more of the same in the final round." That seemed like reasonable conjecture, just for as long as he bore in mind that most of the noise would be on behalf of the much adored Mickelson.



From Mickelson the approach to yesterday's shoot-out had been something of a defining performance and certainly explanation enough for the fact that if America has been in awe of the Tiger for so much of the last decade and a half, its warmest attachment has surely been to the swaggering and mostly amiable Mickelson.



For Woods, victory has always been essentially a private affair, something which offered vindication of superior levels of self-belief. Now that such an austere relationship with fame is lying in shreds at the Tiger's feet, Mickelson's journey between vulnerability and glory has been for most of the galleries more compelling than ever. When he appeared on the course for his final push towards parity with the Tiger in the matter of green jackets, the acclaim was predictably tumultuous.



It was also something he had plainly anticipated with considerable pleasure. "There is nothing more exciting than being in the final group on Sunday at the Masters because you know you have a chance and that's what we all want, that opportunity. I love it here and I love nothing more than walking out last. It is the greatest thing in professional golf."



Mickelson's coruscating third-round 66 became a series of extraordinary detonations – and none more thrilling than something described as a full-swing flop shot. It came from behind the 15th green and set up a birdie where before there had been a serious possibility of disaster. His father, Phil, mused: "The thing is if he missed the shot he would never have heard the end of it. He would have been crucified." Mickelson's friend and former coach Rick Smith agreed: "He's the only guy in the world who would have taken that shot."



That may not have been strictly true. Watson, in fourth at six under, fought his way into yesterday's decisive action with a game at times no less extravagant than Mickelson's. An often strange, puzzling character, Watson's least uncomplicated moments tend to come when his blood is running high on the course.



In the Saturday gloaming he provoked a vast roar with a brilliant birdie at the 18th. It came from golf of the boldest kind and it was still another reminder that the failures of the ageing Tiger and the young Rory had not begun to dampen the American party.



Mickelson's problems on the fourth may not have enhanced the mood but if anyone was capable of talking himself into recovery, it was surely Mickelson. However, in the end the most menacing voices were those of the deceptively gentle Oosthuizen, a major champion with, maybe, a regained sense of his own possibilities – and Bubba, that good ol' boy from the back country.

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