When Phil Mickelson battled Ernie Els at the 2004 US Masters

Undoubtedly two of the greatest players to grace the game, the American and the South African arrived at Augusta National still desperate to win a first Green Jacket.

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were perfect matches for Masters success.

Big-hitters, whose approach shots landed from enormous heights, they both hit the correct ball-shape and were blessed with sensational short game skills.

But, over 15 years into careers that had tasted plenty of success elsewhere, they were still banging their heads against an Augusta National-shaped wall.

And then, on the back nine of the final round in 2004, they found themselves in a head-to-head battle.

It was winner takes all - or, rather, winner takes a first Green Jacket.

Well-suited

The raw facts ahead of the 68th Masters are enough to reveal just how desperate these two world class golfers were to win the tournament.

Mickelson had finished top 12 in eight of the previous nine renewals and no less than four times he had been solo third including 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Els had played the event ten times, finishing top 20 on eight occasions and had been top six in the four years since the turn of the century, including solo second in 2000.

Ahead of the first round Mickelson was introduced by Augusta media committee man Billy Morris with a short biography that ended: "He's played 11 Masters and has a beautiful record here."

"But no win," Mickelson said with a laugh.

He pointed at the Green Jacket Morris was wearing.

"I want one of those," he said. "They're nice."

In a more serious vein he added: "I've been close a number of times and when I finally do breakthrough, it will be more rewarding for going through the difficulties."

Given Mickelson's introduction, it was intriguing that Els, who spoke to the media immediately afterwards, said: "The whole object here is not to start thinking about the Green Jacket."

He added: "You get nervous about it. You really do."

If Mickelson had the slightly better record on the course, he had the disadvantage of being yet to win a Major.

Els was a two-time US Open champion in the 1990s and had lifted the Claret Jug in 2002.

Mickelson was a PGA Tour serial winner whose Major record included eight top three finishes, but none was a W and it hurt.

Big chance

Justin Rose made the running on Thursday and Friday, heading into the weekend with a two-shot lead, but Mickelson and Els were in touch.

A Saturday 69 saw Mickelson assume the 54-hole lead alongside Chris DiMarco with Els three shots back in a tie for fourth.

Tiger Woods, whose brilliance had undoubtedly impacted on the number of Majors the pair could win, was nine shots off the lead and out of the equation.

This was quite obviously a golden opportunity for both.

"It's all going to come down to the back nine," said Els. "Mine is a nice situation to be in. I've got a chance."

Mickelson was still keeping the mood light.

"I do know one thing," he said. "If I'm fortunate enough to come through and win that Green Jacket tomorrow, you'll be seeing my dumb mug here every year for the rest of my life."

Ernie Els plays out of the bunker at the 2004 US Masters
Ernie Els plays out of the bunker at the 2004 US Masters

The Augusta roar

Masters tournaments are often defined by the back nine on Sunday.

If it's a good one, everyone raves about the birdies and the eagles, but most of all they rave about the roars.

If it's not an especially exciting version everyone debates the lack of noise rather as if the roars of the patrons are an endangered species.

There was no debate this time - the back nine on Sunday, April 11, 2004 was one for the ages.

That Els was involved at all seemed extraordinary after he made two early mistakes, but a birdie at the seventh was followed by an eagle-3 at the eighth and he made the turn with a total for the week of 5-under.

Behind him Mickelson gained a shot at the par-five second but then hit reverse, dropping shots at the third, fifth and sixth; he turned in 4-under.

Els upped the ante by making a second eagle-3 of the day at the 13th to stretch clear of the field.

However, Mickelson was himself sparked into life by Amen Corner.

He made birdie-2 at the 12th, birdie-4 at the 13th and birdie-3 at the 14th, very nearly holing out from the fairway at the last of those.

It was a blistering spell, enough to tie Els, but only momentarily because the Big Easy used exquisite touch to get up-and-down for birdie at the 15th and reach 8-under.

"He's got the Green Jacket by the collar," said David Feherty on TV commentary.

That sense was confirmed when Mickelson failed to birdie 15, Els parred his way home, and Mickelson left his tee shot at the par-3 16th 18-feet shot of the flag.

It was, however, a feeling Mickelson didn't share.

"I was very confident today that good things would happen," he said later. "It didn't seem overwhelming. I thought I'll hole this putt and find a birdie at the last two."

With a knee-bend and a fist-pump he completed the first task, added par at 17, and then gave himself another 18-foot putt at the final hole for birdie and the win.

Els was sitting eating an apple as DiMarco splashed out of the front greenside bunker and ran a mere three inches beyond Mickelson's marker on exactly the same line.

He was about to provide the Californian with the perfect read.

DiMarco, seeking to tie Sergio Garcia and Bernhard Langer in fourth, missed.

Mickelson, hoping to end his major duck and slip his arms into a Green Jacket, didn't.

"I had a different feeling this week," he said. "I just had a real belief I was going to come through."

"Is it his time?" the commentator had asked as Mickelson's ball rolled toward the hole.

"Yes!" he cried when it sank. "At long last!"

Mickelson completed a star jump. The galleries went berserk. Els quietly left the putting green.

"I gave it my best shot," said the South African, who would win a fourth Major, the Open in 2012, but never a Green Jacket.

"I don't feel any relief yet, I really don't," said Mickelson.

"I just feel excited, ecstatic, a little disbelief.

"I was watching myself look like an idiot on the 18th green after I made the putt and didn't really care. It was just so much fun, so exciting."

With the curse broken, he would go on to win another two Masters, in 2006 and 2019, a PGA Championship in 2005 and the Open in 2013.

Phil Mickelson puts on the Green Jacket after winning the 2004 US Masters
Phil Mickelson puts on the Green Jacket after winning the 2004 US Masters

This week

Can Mickelson turn back the clock? He's priced 100/1 to win the tournament with Paddy Power and there's no doubt that it looks a difficult, if not impossible, task at the age of 50.

But, as Fred Couples proved time and time again in his 50s, a past Master can shine on Thursday at Augusta National. Moreover, Mickelson has been in the top four after 18 holes twice in the last four years. He's 80/1 with Paddy Power to grab the first round lead (eight places).

READ MORE: Jordan Spieth on the Masters: "It's my favourite tournament in the world."

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