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Phil Mickelson on a Major roll

There were all those squandered chances, all those daring decisions gone awry, all those times when somebody else just made a better shot. For years, it looked as though Phil Mickelson would never win a major.

Now, he's really got the hang of it.

Lefty is on a Tiger-like roll in golf's biggest events after a Sunday stroll through Augusta National, his performance so dominating that he could stroll up the 18th fairway with not a care in the world.

Tip the visor, smile for the patrons, tap in the winning putt, hug the caddie and pose with the wife and kids.

Mickelson is the Masters champion for the second time in three years, a major winner for the third time in his last nine chances.

And when it was over, Tiger Woods was the one who slipped the green jacket on Mickelson's shoulders in the Butler Cabin.

How appropriate.

"I'm having the best time right now playing golf," Mickelson said. "I'm having so much fun being able to compete for major championships. It's just incredible, and to win a couple now, it's just an amazing feeling."

Woods is still the master of the majors, winning 10 before his 30th birthday. But Mickelson is making up for lost time -- most specifically, that 0-for-42 record to begin his career.

"Three-for-nine sounds better, huh?" he asked, not needing an answer.

After Mickelson's breakthrough victory at the 2004 Masters, he showed it wasn't a fluke by winning the PGA Championship at Baltusrol last year. Now, with a two-stroke triumph at Augusta National that wasn't really that close, he's won three of the last nine majors -- more than anyone else during that span.

Woods has two. Four other guys have one apiece.

"I'm certainly a lot cheerier," said Mickelson, who could get a bit testy when he carried around the dreaded "Best Player Never To Win A Major" label. "I felt a sense of relief after I broke through and won a major. Today, I felt this great feeling of accomplishment."

Indeed, this was a performance that would have been out of character for Mickelson just a few years ago.

He didn't take any unnecessary chances. He didn't need to. No one else on the star-studded leaderboard made any sort of serious charge at the leader. Not Woods. Not Retief Goosen. Not Vijay Singh. Certainly not the other member of the Big Five, Ernie Els, who closed with a 76.

Mickelson mainly had to keep an eye on Fred Couples, his playing partner and closest challenger most of the day. Couples pulled even on the first hole, and they stayed that way until Lefty made a birdie on the par-5 eighth hole.

Couples squandered his chance to become the oldest winner in Masters history with atrocious putting. He three-putted three times. He missed at least five putts from less than 10 feet. Overall, he used the short stick a staggering 34 times; only one other players brought it out more.

"You can practice and practice and practice," the 46-year-old Couples said. "When you get out there under the gun, you've got to be able to do it. I just left too many out there today."

Even if Couples had made a few more putts, he might not have beaten Mickelson. One gets the sense Lefty would have done whatever it took to win his second Masters.

Mickelson made it through the first 17 holes with nothing but birdies and pars. When he finally made a mistake -- an errant second shot at No. 18 led to a bogey -- it didn't matter at all.

By then, they already had pulled the Mickelson-sized green jacket out of the closet. He went to the last hole three shots clear of the field. Even with a bogey, he shot a 3-under 69 for a 7-under 281 total.

Tim Clark was two shots back in second, holing out a bunker shot at the final hole to take the runner-up spot. Couples, Goosen, Woods, Jose Maria Olazabal and second-round leader Chad Campbell were another stroke behind at 284. Singh, who led after the first round, finished at 285 with Angel Cabrera.

"The stress-free walk up 18 was incredible," Mickelson said. "I had actually been wanting like a four- or five-shot lead, but three was OK. It was a great feeling walking up there, knowing that I had the tournament in hand."

Woods hung around all day, but never made a serious run at the lead. Like Couples, he was doomed by a shaky putter that was needed 33 times. He three-putted from 15 feet for bogey at No. 11, and missed two eagles putts from inside 15 feet on the back nine. A 12-footer for birdie missed the cup at 12. So did a 10-foot try at 14.

"I putted atrociously," Woods said. "As good as I hit it, that's as bad as I putted. Once I got on the green, I was a spaz."

Not Mickelson, whose won $1.26 million and moved to the top of the PGA Tour money list. The victory also pushed him up to No. 2 in the world ranking behind Woods.

Woods is the only other player in the last 20 years to win a major three years in a row. Maybe he won't get to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships as quickly as everyone expected.

At the green jacket ceremony, Mickelson asked the crowd for a moment of silence for Woods' father, Earl, who could not travel to Augusta for the first time because of cancer.

Woods said he would talk to his father Sunday night, and joked that "he's probably a little mad at how I putted."

Olazabal had the best score of the week on the bulked-up, 7,445-yard course, moving up the board with a 66 on Sunday.

But it was Couples who had the best chance to challenge Mickelson. If he had won, it would have been especially poignant on the 20-year anniversary of Nicklaus' stunning back-nine charge to win his sixth green jacket at age 46.

Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, didn't come close to making a run at Mickelson. First came a three-putt on the 11th, his 4-foot par putt spinning around the cup. On the 14th hole, Couples had a 4-foot birdie putt to pull within one shot. It caught the lip and spun 5 feet away, and he missed that one, too.

Mickelson poured it on with an eagle chip that caught the lip on the 15th, and steady pars the rest of the way until the 18th. Then it was off to Butler Cabin.

"Great playing," Woods told Mickelson.

"Thanks, buddy," Lefty replied.

 

 




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