AUGUSTA, Ga. Phil Mickelson gathered up his oldest child in his arms and held on tight, as though he needed reassurance that everything he was feeling was real.
''Daddy won!'' Mickelson said.
The two of them were on the steps leading up to the scoring trailer behind August National's 18th green. Moments earlier, Mickelson's 18-footer for birdie tumbled dramatically over the left lip of the cup and all that remained to make it official was for him to sign his scorecard.
Hundreds of people on every side roared their approval. Four-year-old Amanda Mickelson looked into her father's eyes, and smiled broadly.
''Can you believe it?'' he asked.
This time there was no need to wait for an answer.
In the fading light of a hazy afternoon, Mickelson slipped on a green jacket and simultaneously shed the label of patron saint to every striver and also-ran in sports. For the record, it was his first win after 42 straight misses in golf's major tournaments. It was as if the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series, or the Buffalo Bills finally broke through and grabbed a Super Bowl.
''The most difficult part of the journey has been dealing with I don't want to say failure but dealing with losses time after time. It gets frustrating,'' Mickelson said. ''You just can't let it.''
Now he has the one victory that validates all the others, 22 on the PGA Tour, the first coming while he was still a junior in college. That one created expectations that he struggled years to fulfill. During the final rounds of some majors, there were spectacular mistakes and memorable collapses. But other times, when Mickelson played bravely and well, someone always seemed to play better.
One of the toughest of those losses came at Pinehurst in the 1999 U.S. Open. There, on the final green, the late Payne Stewart did almost the same thing to Mickelson that he did Sunday at the Masters to Ernie Els: make a long putt to nail down the win.
Mickelson had been prepared during that week at the Open to rush back to Scottsdale, Ariz., where his wife, Amy, was in the last days of a rough pregnancy with Amanda. He was already a bundle of emotions. After the putt dropped, Stewart shook Mickelson's hand and told him, ''Good luck with the baby. There's nothing like being a father.''
The moment came flooding back as Mickelson struggled with another wave of emotions.
''I thought about that,'' he said. ''It was very similar. We both made a putt at the last hole, similar lengths to win by one. He was very prophetic about family, too. I thought about that as I was holding Amanda.''
Parenthood, like just about everything else in his life, proved to be an easy segue for Mickelson. But in a sense, even that seemed to be working against him.
Early in his career, he seemed almost too hungry to deliver on the promise his enormous talent made. At critical junctures in the biggest tournaments, Mickelson tried reckless or nearly impossible shots, sometimes, it seemed, just to prove it could be done. Later on, as maturity and the experience of so many close and costly defeats chastened him, the question became whether family, fame and fortune had made Mickelson too contented.
In between, rivals Tiger Woods, Els and Vijay Singh surged past him as the most likely heirs to the championship traditions established by multiple-major winners Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Ben Hogan. There were growing doubts Mickelson would put in the time necessary to become lean and mean enough to fight back.
He started this season outside the Top 10 in the world rankings for the first time in almost a decade, and his game was supposed to be in disarray. Instead, he came to Augusta exuding a quiet confidence, with a PGA Tour win already in his pocket this season and a spot atop the money list, a perch he hasn't occupied in a half-dozen years.
Now we know why all the adversity Augusta threw in his path couldn't erase that Cheshire cat grin. Mickelson turns 34 in June, the same age that Hogan was when he grabbed the first of his nine career majors. He has no way of knowing whether this is the first or last of his career, but if nothing else, he will no longer have to hear about being the best player never to win a major.
''When I was asked about that, I think I was fairly consistent in my answer. I really believe I've got plenty of time; that if I continue to work on things, the right things,'' he said, ''that I'll continue to get better.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
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