At the Masters, Phil Mickelson's Win Takes Tiger off the Table

When Tiger Woods scored a hole in one on the seventh hole at the Masters this Sunday, he threw his hands up in a small celebration. For an instant, the strained look he’d been wearing for most of the tournament passed, but even though that shot put him back in the running for the green jacket, he didn’t seem jubilant. His demonstration seemed, like most of Woods’s play this weekend, forced and rote.

Compare that with the sheer joy on Phil Mickelson’s face when he took home the top prize later that day, and the long embrace he shared with his wife, Amy. Mickelson’s game had been off for about 11 months—about the same amount of time Amy has been treated for breast cancer. She was on the course today, watching her husband play brilliant, enthusiastic golf.

A few other comparisons: Mickelson created a heartwarming photo op earlier in the week when he invited his wife’s doctor to caddie a few holes during the Houston Open; Woods had security in place at the Masters to prevent any embarrassing photos should the golfer find himself ambushed by a former mistress.

Mickelson’s smiling face met viewers at almost every commercial break, telling fans about the math and science foundation he and his wife (and ExxonMobil) established to help make those subjects interesting to kids; Tiger, meanwhile, was featured in a controversial commercial in which his late father scolds him for bad behavior.

At a time when the PGA is trying to clean up its image to retain big sponsors, a loving husband and clean liver like Mickelson is just what professional golf needs. The story of how he has supported his wife during her illness, of his devotion to her through it all, is the perfect anecdote to Tiger’s solipsistic, almost pathological, womanizing ways. But that doesn’t make Mickelson's victory less sweet.

For one, he played just outstanding golf. Here's one last comparison between Mickelson and Woods: after landing in the woods on 13, Mickelson shot clear through the trees. When Woods landed in the pines on the 11th, his shot ricocheted off a trunk and back into the brush. (Both had trouble putting their way out after good shots landed them on the green, but while Mickelson still managed a birdie, Woods hit that hole one over par). At the same time, Mickelson's story was strong enough to lift the narrative of the Masters above Woods's tabloid trash. At the end, the headline wasn't that Woods lost. It was that Mickelson won.

Earlier in the week, Raina Kelley argued that Woods was a man seeking redemption. Perhaps, she wrote, golf was a way not to escape from his misdeeds, but a pathway toward correcting them. That may be true. But redemption in the form of a green jacket, of a victory during his first tournament post-scandal, seems a little too easy. Woods, as he admitted in his post-rehab, pre-Masters press conference, chalked up his cheating ways in some respect to being given too much, too fast. "Entitled" was the phrase he used—a sense that some things just belong to you. To have won the Masters, when he clearly needs to work harder on his marriage and on his game, would have been more of the same.

Woods deserves his chance at redemption, and more shots—18 holes at a time—as the PGA Tour continues this summer. His swing will likely improve as he plays more, and with that, who knows what else in his life may grow stronger? In the meantime, Mickelson proved his worth as a great golfer, and he appears to be an incredibly loving husband. Today, the good guy won out over the bad boy, and playing inspired golf outshone simply going through the motions.

Woods's Masters experience didn't have to end this way. Find out what iconic films could have served as the model for a more memorable comeback in our Tiger's Hollywood Ending gallery. 

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