Perhaps the most underrated moment for a patron at a golf tournament is one that barely registers on a decibel scale.
For there to even be a murmur, an assemblage of fans must be on the same page. A murmur begins with nothing more than anticipation and collective focus on the shot about to be played. It goes from silence to a gentle crescendo as the ball lofts high into the air, to a point where anticipation and reality begin to converge.
It is at this point where the gallery’s murmur can become one of two things:
A tremendous roar;
Or an agonizing groan.
Phil Mickelson has heard — and done — both.
Lefty is famous for his perceived reckless abandon on a golf course. The U.S. Open in his grasp, not to mention a real shot at his own version of the Tiger Slam — a Mickelslam — Lefty threw caution and wisdom to the wind and on the 18th tee at Winged Foot in 2006. A 5 wood, a mid iron and a wedge added together to equal a bogey 5 would have won him the Open. But a blocked driver off a corporate tent roof, and a go-for-it, ahem, “recovery” shot gifted the Open to Geoff Ogilvy.
Mickelson, in major championship golf, hadn’t been the same since. At least not on the scorecard, and not on the leaderboard.
Until Sunday at Augusta.
But while the result was clearly different, the golfer — and his golf — was nearly one and the same.
Give Mickelson credit; he won his third Masters with a bogey-free round from the final pairing on Sunday. That’s brilliant enough.
But the way he did it was astonishing. He carefully navigated the first seven holes with relatively nondescript pars before a birdie on the par-5 8th gave him a share of the lead nearing the turn.
The Masters doesn’t rightfully begin until the leaders make the turn toward Amen Corner on Sunday — everybody knows that — and in a tournament with pristine scoring conditions all week, the champion was going to be decided by who went low on the last seven holes.
But Lefty had some early fireworks in him — what else is new? And they came long before the fateful murmur began to build around the 13th green. After finally pulling even with Westwood, a player who clearly staggered a bit during the historic Mickelson Roars a day before, Lefty inexplicably took driver on the 9th tee — and snap-hooked it.
Same player. Same, it seemed, brand of disastrous decision.
But somehow Lefty made par from Dead, and Westwood was the one who made bogey. And yet Mickelson never backed off, missing fairways at 10 and 11. And still he made pars. Somehow.
And so when his tee shot on the dangerous 12th landed in a similar spot from which he made birdie in the 2006 Masters, it still felt as though Lefty wasn’t necessarily in control. A two-shot lead is nothing on the back six of Augusta, especially when the leader won’t — and in the case of 13 and 15, can’t — put his driver away.
And so came the big hook on 13, into the trees and onto the pinestraw right of the fairway. If Mickelson couldn’t control things on a hole on which he is about 143-under for his career, nothing could save him from himself.
But he had a look.
He had a shot.
In fact, Lefty had two shots, equal to the number of trees he needed to blast through.
A). Lay up safely and let his legendary wedge game do the work.
B). Go for the green in two, with the green jacket — and perhaps his legacy as well — on the line.
Lefty pulled the 6 iron from the bag, and from 207 yards away as the gallery stood and watched in disbelief, the ball came shooting out of the woods like a rocket.
In that moment, as the ball angled toward the green, winning and losing were riding along with it in the air. Here the murmur began, clothed in apprehension and bathed in hope. Westwood, also from the pinestraw to the right of the fairway, thought the ball was headed for Rae’s Creek. Surely the gallery had to think it was possible. They had seen it before.
Hope and apprehension on a golf course are different than in typical walks of life. They are audible feelings when a club is in hand, and certainly when a ball is airborne. And as the Lefty’s ball began its descent, the murmur’s pitch rose.
And when it landed masterfully just 5-6 feet or so from the pin, the murmur erupted into a guttural roar.
Lefty didn’t win the Masters with the shot of his career on 13. But he could’ve lost it. We know because we’ve all see him do it.
And when he went for the green in two again on 15, and went pin-hunting on 18 (after, it should be noted, taking 3 wood off the tee with a two-shot lead), and after finding the bottom of the cup with a birdie putt rolling so furiously he might still be chasing it had he missed, no one was surprised with any of that, either.
“A great shot is when you pull it off,” Mickelson said Sunday evening as the sun set on a drama-filled Masters week. “A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”
Because of the way he plays the game, Lefty is the people’s champion. Always will be.
It is a role he wears every bit as well as a green jacket.