Phil Mickelson strolled up the 18th fairway at Augusta National with that lumbering walk of his — smiling, waving, working the gallery.
The best player never to win a major?
You wouldn't have known it Sunday.
Mickelson stepped over an 18-foot putt, calmly rolled it into the cup and forever removed the stigma of all those close calls, all those gut-wrenching disappointments, all those squandered chances.
The best player never to win a major?
He's the Masters champion.
"Get used to me, because I'm going to be back every year," he told the Augusta National members, having finally gotten a green jacket of his own.
Mickelson hardly played like a guy who was 0-for-42 in the majors. He shot 31 on the back nine — the best for a winner since Jack Nicklaus in 1986 — and knocked off a three-time major champion who shot 67 on the final day.
Ernie Els was on the putting green, desperately hoping for a playoff, when the winning putt dropped. Sure, he was disappointed. But he had to give Mickelson his due.
"Phil deserved this one," Els said. "He won it. He didn't lose this one like some of the other ones. He won this one."
Ah, the other ones.
Twice a runner-up at the U.S. Open. Another second-place finish at the PGA Championship. Four third-place showings at the Masters, including the last three years.
With each passing year, the burden became greater: Mickelson hit the ball so far. He could do magical things with his short game. The only thing he couldn't do was win a major.
He doesn't have to worry about that question anymore.
"It was such a tough quest, such a tough journey," Mickelson said. "It feels that much better now that I finally have it."
Only after it was over — after the last putt was made and the championship was his — did Mickelson finally seem to grasp the enormity of his accomplishment. He high-fived the crowd on his way to the scoring hut. He hugged his wife, Amy. And he scooped up his three children, telling 4-year-old Amanda the news she was too young to comprehend.
"Daddy won!" he said. "Can you believe it?"
Els tried to pull away on a dramatic back nine, collecting an eagle, a birdie and a host of clutch pars. But Mickelson, who was 2-over on the front side, birdied five of the last seven holes for a closing 69.
When it was over, 2003 champ Mike Weir slipped the 43-long jacket over Mickelson's shoulders. Sure beats the other thing he's been carrying on his back for 12 years.
"I feel excited, ecstatic, a little disbelief," he said.
So many times he stood around watching others make the final putt — Payne Stewart at the 1999 U.S. Open, David Toms at the '01 PGA Championship.
On Sunday, Mickelson got the final putt. It rolled toward the cup, swirled around the left edge and dropped in — making him just the fourth player in Masters history to win with a birdie on the final stroke of the tournament.
Mickelson leapt as high as he could and threw both arms in the air, kissed the ball that he plucked from the cup and tossed it into a delirious crowd.
Even as he sat in fabled Butler Cabin, he was reliving the 12-foot birdie on No. 12 — the centerpiece of Amen Corner — that kept him close, the 15-footer on 16 that gave him a share of the lead, the final putt that won it all.
"I was very confident today that good things would happen," Mickelson said.
On the final hole, he got some help from his playing partner, Chris DiMarco, who began the final round sharing the lead with Mickelson but faded to a 76.
At 18, DiMarco blasted out of a bunker just beyond Mickelson's ball, giving Lefty a chance to read the line for the winning putt.
DiMarco's attempt slid by the left edge. Mickelson's didn't.
"I didn't think there was any way he would miss it," DiMarco said.
Els was chomping an apple on the putting green, hopeful of a playoff and a chance for the third leg of the Grand Slam. But the cheers for Mickelson meant despair for the Big Easy.
"I played as good as I could," Els said. "What more can you do, you know?
Mickelson finished at 9-under 279 and earned $1.17 million for his 23rd career victory.
This was the sixth straight major won by a first-timer — something that had never happened in 144 years of championship golf.
K.J. Choi holed a 5-iron from 220 yards on the 11th hole for eagle, kept his hopes alive with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 13th but wound up with a 69, three shots behind.
Tiger Woods was long gone before the fireworks started. He made a double bogey — his third of the tournament — on the 13th hole and shot 71, leaving him 11 shots out of the lead in a tie for 22nd, his worst finish as a pro at the Masters.
Woods has gone seven majors without winning, and has played his last five over par.
"It's part of playing golf to not always be up there," said Woods, continuing to maintain that his game is close to rounding into championship form.
Tiger wasn't needed on this day.
There were so many spectacular shots along the back nine — including two holes-in-one about 10 minute apart at 16 — the gallery was out of breath. It came down to a Mickelson-Els duel that will be remembered through the ages.
Mickelson sure won't forget it.
A seasoned pro coming up 18, he let loose when it was over.
"I was watching myself look like an idiot on the 18th green after I made the putt and I didn't really care," Mickelson said. "It was just so much fun."