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This duel promises classic major action

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Sunday's door is open, ready for a Slam.

Phil Mickelson wants "desperately" to solve his major shortfall, turning exotic left-handed skills and "new levels of confidence and mind-set" into a Masters win, "becoming part of history, an accomplishment I would embrace the rest of my life."

Jewels have eluded him.

But as Mickelson scraps for his own overdue Grand Slam chapter, he must match wits, hearts, talents, guts and bravado in a mano-a-mano Augusta National finish alongside Tiger Woods, the escalating legend who keeps rewriting the entire book of golf.

Hungry prince. Colossal king.

"I haven't thought about history," said Woods, who was probably lying, since he could depart Georgia having outdone all the game's grand, old Nicklauses, Joneses and Hogans, becoming the first to hold the U.S. Open, Masters, British Open and PGA Championship all at once.

How does golf get better than this? Lefty taking swings at Tiger, with a gifted chorus eager to pounce if front-runners falter, including the explosive Mark Calcavecchia, unshakeable new Masters threat Chris DiMarco, powerful Angel Cabrera from Argentina, two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els and that celebrated Floridian who deeply identifies with Mickelson's yearning for a first major, David Duval.

Love the theatrics. Artistry that awes. As passionate observers, we tolerate dozens of so-so tournaments, scores of average ballgames, awaiting an afternoon so rich, pure and meaningful as Tiger and Co.

Save your Sunday, at least after church, locating a dandy TV that can clearly, loudly deliver what could be a dynamic sports memory. Do you really have to like golf to get turned on by this?

For me, if Woods again rules, there is no debate. It's an uninterrupted Grand Slam sweep once thought unreachable. Whether achieved in the same year or in a 10-month Tiger wraparound, it would be a phenomenon I would value ahead of 70 baseball homers by Mark McGwire or 100 basketball points by Wilt Chamberlain.

Woods is the world's No. 1 player, Phil ranks No. 2, but with 18 holes to go in an extraordinary 65th Masters, the gap between champ and challenger, frankly, is larger than the Grand Canyon, that natural wonder in Mickelson's home state, Arizona.

Barely into his 26th year, approaching what should be his prime, Tiger has become so astonishing, in a time when golf has never had more lavish numbers or abilities, that producing an apparent sweetheart of a round like 4-under-par 68 on Saturday can strike him like a blob of mediocrity.

"I kept grinding and plodding," Woods said. "Not really at my best. On the third hole my tee shot was so bad that my ball wound up 18 inches from a tree, sitting by a pine cone, so all I could do was scrounge, yip, half-fat it up beside the green."

He made par.

Wonder if Van Gogh or Rembrandt ever spoke like that about their art or Yo Yo Ma about his music or Thomas Edison about that light bulb? Tiger expects to hit every drive 350 yards down the middle, bomb/finesse an iron shot within 4 feet of the hole and dead-center the putt.

Often, he does.

"Tiger drives it so far," said Chris DiMarco, the Masters long shot who played Saturday at Woods' side, "that Augusta National is a par-68 course for this amazing man. I was hitting 7-iron shots at greens while he used a sand wedge. Not quite fair, but all we can do is keep coming at the giant, hoping to catch him at less than perfection."

All this Tiger stuff isn't going to keep Mickelson from unloading every muscle, tactic and dream on Tiger among the pines, azaleas and roaring tens of thousands.

"This challenge is what I've been preparing for since I was a kid," Mickelson said. "I dreamed of this when picking up range balls during hours of practice in my teens. I can't wait. If this doesn't crank your juices, you'd better dial 911."

Lefty, claiming new plateaus of mental and physical resolve, has shown splendid bounce-back moves as this Masters evolved. Splashing a shot in Rae's Creek to double bogey the 12th hole Friday, then coming back with birdies at 13 and 15. Then, on Saturday, three-putting from 6 feet at the eighth hole and getting another double ugly at 14 before rallying with birds at 17 and 18.

Today, he'll need it all.

This could be a classic. What a script. Tiger Woods, the planet's runaway best golfer, who keeps stalking the monster deeds of a Jack Nicklaus career, bouncing about Augusta National as he works to fight off Mickelson, Duval and the others, doing the Slam.

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