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Marquee matchup in final pairing

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will go head-to-head today at the Ford Championship at Doral.

By BOB HARIG
Published March 4, 2006


MIAMI - They do their best to dismiss each other, feigning indifference. They trot out all the cliches, about there being 36 holes to go, plenty of birdies to be made, all kinds of other contenders to worry about.

But there is no avoiding their pairing in the final twosome today at the Ford Championship at Doral.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will reprise their final-round duel of a year ago, this time in the third of the $5.5-million tournament at the Blue Monster course.

"I do enjoy, win, lose or draw, having a chance to compete against him and I know that the more opportunities I have to play head-to-head against him the same events, in the same group, it can only help my game," said Mickelson, who shot 6-under-par 66.

Playing at nearly the identical time but on opposite nines, Woods, 30, and Mickelson, 35, appeared headed toward the same number most of Friday, finishing at 131, 13 under par.

Woods, who led after a first-round 64, added 67 and was a whopping 37 under at Doral in his last six rounds. Colombia's Carmilo Villegas, who starred at the University of Florida, shot 66 to join them in a tie for first.

Almost forgotten was Scott Verplank, who lost in a playoff to Craig Parry here two years ago. Verplank shot 65 to make it a foursome atop the leaderboard, although he didn't figure to get much mention.

"Those guys are deserving of having the accolades," Verplank, 41, said. "They are both at the top of the heap. Obviously Tiger is the best player in the world and he's been proving it for several years now. And Phil has raised his game up to a new level in the last couple of years. Man, the spotlight ought to be on them."

Woods and Mickelson are not known to be best buddies. They had a disastrous first-day pairing at the Ryder Cup two years ago and generally talk about one another through clenched teeth and with a grudging respect.

Because Woods and Mickelson finished first, they will go off last in the final twosome, providing what promises to be another raucous atmosphere.

"We've got a long way to go," Woods said. "You've got to continue making birdies and see what happens. Right now, we're tied for the lead ... but somebody could easily pass us. You just know that the golf course is pretty receptive right now. The greens are soft. You can be aggressive and fire at the flags."

The conditions have led to some very low scoring. Through two rounds, there were 111 players under par. The 36-hole cut came at 140, 4 under, a tournament record.

Just a shot back were David Toms (66), Mark Wilson (67) and Rich Beem (67), who along with Michael Campbell had the distinction of being the only players to win a major championship when Woods finished second.

Beem won the 2002 PGA and Campbell captured last year's U.S. Open, Woods' only runnerup finishes in majors compared with 10 titles.

"You always expect him up there," Beem said. "You see his name and you expect him up there. I mean, the guy is a phenomenal talent, swing changes, everything that he does with the golf club and golf ball are pretty amazing. You just kind of hope you catch him on an off week somewhere."

Woods won this year at the Buick Open, running his PGA Tour total to 47. He also has 19 runnerup finishes. Mickelson has 27 wins and 18 seconds, including last year's Doral.

But Woods needed to muster all he could to defeat Mickelson a year ago. Lefty led by three and Woods by five through 36 holes, then shot 66 in the third round and lost ground. Woods shot 63-66 on the weekend.

Woods' winning total of 24 under was the lowest in the 44-year history of the tournament.

"Most duels are usually a group ahead, a group behind, whatever it may be," Woods said. "When you get a chance to go head-to-head, it's always a rush."