SPRINGFIELD, N.J. - Playing major championships in this part of the country has always brought out the best in Phil Mickelson. Until yesterday, it was merely second best.
After being the runner-up in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island and again at last year's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, Mickelson won the weather-delayed 87th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club.
It was the second major victory of Mickelson's once star-crossed career, following last year's Masters, his fourth win this year and the 27th overall since he turned pro in 1992.
With a shot he had practiced for hours as a kid in the backyard of his San Diego home, Mickelson birdied the par-5 18th hole to finish at 4-under-par 276 and beat 1995 champion Steve Elkington of Australia and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark by a stroke.
The shot - a pop-up chip from heavy rough about 35 feet from the flag - rolled to within 3 feet of the cup, and Mickelson made the putt. Mickelson didn't jump in the air and pump his fists, as he did after making a long birdie putt on the 18th hole at Augusta.
The 35-year-old left-hander simply took off his cap, brushed his hair and mouthed the words, "Thank God." There were no victory laps, unless you count those his 2-year-old son Evan kept doing on the green after he and his two big sisters came out to hug their father.
Mickelson admitted later that the pressure of having to play in the lead for nearly the entire tournament, and sleep on a one-stroke lead after the final round was suspended because of bad weather Sunday night, made him feel a sense of relief more than elation.
"It was a week where things didn't go perfectly the whole week," Mickelson said. "The first couple of days, the ball was going in the hole and thereafter, it was not. I'm just ecstatic that I was able to get it done."
The pressure didn't dissipate yesterday, when Mickelson made a bogey on the 230-yard par-3 16th hole, in part because he didn't have the right club in his bag. Mickelson had left a 3-iron out of his bag on Sunday in favor of an extra wedge, and his 4-iron ballooned short, into a bunker. He missed a 16-footer to save par.
Mickelson then saw that Bjorn had birdied the par-5 17th to tie Elkington and him for the lead. Bjorn and Elkington narrowly missed birdie putts at 18. Elkington's 10-footer grazed the cup. Bjorn, after hooking his approach left of the green, saw his 20-footer rim the cup and spin out.
Then it was Mickelson's turn.
After crunching his drive down the middle of the fairway, Mickelson tapped the plaque placed on the spot Jack Nicklaus hit a famous 1-iron approach that helped him win the 1967 U.S. Open.
"For some good karma," Mickelson said later.
When his 3-wood approach got caught up in some wind and settled into the rough to the right of the green, Mickelson and his caddie, Jim Mackay, asked CBS analyst David Feherty to find it so they wouldn't inadvertently step on it.
As he set up for his next shot, Mickelson thought back to his childhood.
"We had some pretty thick rough in our backyard, and that's exactly what I was thinking on 18, that it is no different from what I've done in my backyard since I was a kid," said Mickelson, who would have forced a three-man, three-hole playoff had he not birdied the hole. "I had been a little tentative on some of the shots out of the rough earlier in the week. I didn't go in aggressive enough. It was a great feeling to see it come out the way I wanted it to."
Using his lob wedge, Mickelson popped the ball softly in the air. The green, soaked by Sunday night's rain, slowed it down enough, and the ball stopped gently near the cup. After Davis Love III putted out to finish at 2-under (tied with Tiger Woods), Mickelson stepped up and confidently stroked it in.
Why didn't he jump in the air this time?
"Well, 18 feet to 3 feet, expectations are a little different," he said with a smile.
Asked to compare his two major championships, Mickelson said: "At Augusta, I was a couple of shots back and I had to charge to get the lead. Here it was just trying to fight out a very difficult golf course and make pars and one birdie at the end. There certainly was a sense of relief."
And validation. If his victory at Augusta vindicated Mickelson for all his past failures and near misses in major championships, his win at Baltusrol secured his status among the game's best players.
"Obviously all of his talents are coming out at the level he wanted them to come out," Rick Smith, Mickelson's coach, said as his prize pupil was lifting the Wanamaker Trophy nearby. "His focus on winning majors became more apparent the past few years."
Said Bjorn, who has now finished second or tied for second three times in major championships: "Phil deserves this more than anybody. He's not a one-major guy. He's a 10-major guy. He's going to go on now and contend for majors as he's always done, but it's going to be easier and easier for him to win now."
Mickelson said he didn't want to think too much about the future, about being halfway to a career Grand Slam.
"I want to relish this and enjoy the fact that for the next seven months, I'm the most recent major winner," said Mickelson, the first left-hander to win the PGA Championship and only one of three lefties to win a major in history.
Mickelson certainly had plenty of company in his celebration, not only from his family and friends who were here watching, but from the thousands of New York-area golf fans who have pulled for him since he lost to Tiger Woods at Bethpage three years ago. They cheered him from the moment he emerged from the locker room yesterday morning.
"Let's go down the shore and have a beer," one of them said shortly after Mickelson clinched victory.
Steve Loy, Mickelson's former coach at Arizona State and now his agent, said it best as he surveyed the rowdy celebration by the 18th green.
"There's New York's champion," Loy said.
With next year's Open scheduled at nearby Winged Foot, No. 3 might already be in the works.
Site: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta Ga.
Score: 9-under 279
Final shot: 18-foot birdie putt
Runner-up: Ernie Els
Site: Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, J.J.
Score: 4-under 276
Final shot: 3-foot birdie putt
Runners-up: Thomas Bjorn, Steve Elkington