Phil Mickelson of the United States hits a shot during...

Phil Mickelson of the United States hits a shot during the final round of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (April 8, 2012) Credit: Getty Images


The first indication that it was really bad for Phil Mickelson came as he walked toward the edge of the woods to the left of the fourth green and someone in the gallery told him, "It ain't that bad."

The fellow was just trying to cheer up Mickelson because the ball was wedged in deeply near what looked like bamboo and ivy. Sure enough, the greatest lefthanded golfer of all time took two swipes righthanded, then chunked a pitch into the bunker, blasted out and converted a triple-bogey 6. He was done at this Masters.

With that, we all got another lesson in major championship golf: It ain't that easy.

Also, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

If ever there had been a cinch, this would have been it. Mickelson entered the final round in the final group, a spot from which he had won his three green jackets. He was on a massive roll from Saturday. He was only one shot behind Peter Hanson, a nice guy and good golfer, but probably in over his head. The fellows who were behind did not seem to matter. This is Phil's course and this was going to be Phil's day.

The stories were ready to write themselves: Mickelson refused to quit after being 4 over after 10 holes Thursday. He had actually ignited his week with the triple-bogey he made on 10 that day, losing a ball in something akin to spinach. He was to earn his fourth green jacket, securing a special place in the history of golf.

Except that the history of golf is filled with weird bounces, like the one his 4-iron shot took as it clanged off the railing of the bleachers left of No. 4 green.

Mickelson defended his shot and strategy, saying he had to aim left because he thought the trouble was all to the right. "If it goes into people and stops right there, no problem. If it goes into the grandstand, no problem," he said. "It hit the metal railing and shot in the trees. And not only was it unplayable, but I couldn't take an unplayable [lie]. There was no place to go other than back to the tee. So I took the risk of trying to hit it a few times."

That's Mickelson. Risk-taking had paid off from the pine straw in 2010, and many other times. "Phil Mickelson goes for it. That's why he wins," said Bubba Watson, his fellow lefty who won Sunday.

Although Mickelson kept saying that he was most upset about not taking advantage of opportunities on the back nine, it is hard not to think about how his round would have gone had he just made bogey on the fourth hole. But you can say that about most major championships. It is darned hard to win them, and always has been.

Stories say that Craig Wood was accepting congratulations for having won the 1935 Masters until Gene Sarazen made a double-eagle on the 15th hole. That forced a playoff, which Sarazen won -- essentially putting the Masters on the map. It remains the most famous double-eagle in tournament history, regardless of the one Louis Oosthuizen made on No. 2 Sunday.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have been so amazingly good, they have made winning majors look easier than it is. They also have elevated the stature and exposure of the four big tournaments so much that elite golfers become totally distracted by them. As Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, said the other day: "You've hit such a high in your career that you want it all the time. And that 'want' can sometimes get in you."

When Mickelson was asked what he took from this day, he said: "Third place. It's not what I was hoping for."

It wasn't what most of us had expected of a day that reminded us not to expect anything.