The road to the Masters is part joyride and part slog, and the difference can be the width of a blade of grass. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els arrived at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on opposite sides of that narrow divide, one a carefree former Masters champion preparing for a return to Magnolia Lane, the other a Hall of Famer grinding through Florida.
Fate, of course, could have easily reversed their roles. Eight years ago Mickelson and Els dueled for a green jacket, and the result has defined their careers ever since.
With a closing 31, including an 18-foot birdie that curled in on the 72nd hole, Mickelson beat Els by a shot and punched a lifetime ticket to the Masters. It was his first of four majors, three of them at Augusta National.
Els, who had won his third major at the 2002 British Open, stopped winning them altogether. He came to epitomize the player who wanted the green jacket too much, a latter-day Greg Norman.
Once a smooth and dependable putter, Els began a slow fade from the elite. He first criticized the belly putter, then stuck one in his bag, where it has stubbornly remained through makes and misses.
If some saw the move to a long putter as desperation, its genesis was understandable. Els wanted to make putts, to win titles, to have a place at the tournament he covets most. Now he is forced to play his way into Augusta National every year. "I can't lie to you," Els says. "I'm thinking about it constantly."
Two weeks after two closing bogeys kept him from victory in Tampa and an automatic invitation to the Masters, Els tied for fourth at Bay Hill, where he stumbled in with a final-round 75. A solo third-place finish would have lifted him into the top 50 in the World Ranking and into the Masters. (He improved to 58th.) His routes into a tournament he has played every year since 1994 are down to two: He must win this week's Shell Houston Open or receive a special exemption from Augusta National, whose officials can invite whomever they please.
After Tiger Woods, who rolled to a five-shot victory over Graeme McDowell, Els was easily the crowd favorite at Bay Hill. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational two years ago (the same year he won the World Golf Championship at Doral), and he has ties up and down the Sunshine State. His brushes with near victory have confirmed Els's ability and exposed his flaws. "When you're in the hot seat, people are going to criticize you," Els says. "When you hit a good putt and it misses, you're still going to get criticized. So that's the position I'm in."
Mickelson has no such concerns, though he played an indifferent Florida swing following a hot start out West. (He finished 43rd at Doral and 24th at Bay Hill.) Mickelson, who took his son, Evan, on their annual trip to Universal Studios last week, has won the Masters coming in hot and cold. In 2004 he shot 30 under par and won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January before winning the Masters. In '06 he won the BellSouth Classic by 13 and then the Masters the following week. In '10 he didn't win a tournament in the first three months but won the Masters.
"When I get to Augusta, I feel as if I don't have to be perfect," says Mickelson, who will also play the Houston Open, which he won last year. "I'm very relaxed. It would be better, though, to have played well and have a little bit of confidence heading in. In '06 I carried that momentum over. Though I won in Houston last year and didn't carry that into [the Masters], I still think that's the best way [to get ready]—to be in contention."