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Mickelson stalking Tiger

Woods closes in on history, but the PGA Tour's best left-hander has another chance to play the spoiler.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- To call him a nemesis is a reach, for there hardly has been such a person for Tiger Woods. But if you really must find a foil, a pest in Woods' path to perfection, it is Phil Mickelson.

He has managed to do what few in golf have, figuring out a way to block out all the Tiger talk. He won when a different result appeared destined, stopping a couple impressive Woods streaks along the way.

But this would be the greatest yet.

When he steps to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club this afternoon, playing in the final Masters pairing with Woods, Mickelson will be poised to topple golf's best player and put his name on an elusive major-championship trophy.

"The way I look at it is, the winner of this tournament doesn't just win a major, he becomes a part of the history of the game," Mickelson said. "That's what excites me. This tournament creates something that is very special. Year in and year out, the history of the game is made here. I want to be a part of that." Woods, 25, said he wasn't thinking about history after his 4-under 68 on Saturday, which is about as likely as his need for a bank loan. He kept himself in position to win the Masters, which would give him four consecutive major-championship victories and continue the debate about whether the feat constitutes a Grand Slam.

After winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship last year, Woods can complete a "Tiger Slam" with his second Masters victory today.

But Mickelson has been there before to stop such runs of superiority, getting in the way last year at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, where Woods attempted to win his seventh straight PGA Tour event.

Later in the year, Mickelson trailed Woods by a shot entering the final round of the Tour Championship, and Mickelson went on to win and stop a streak of 19 consecutive PGA Tour events in which Woods won after leading through 54 holes.

Now Woods leads again at 12 under par. It is the 23rd time he has led an PGA Tour event through 54 holes, and he has won 20 of those.

Mickelson, 30, who has 18 PGA Tour titles but no professional majors, birdied the last two holes for 69 that put him at 205, a shot back and in the final pairing with Woods.

"I did not want to have what happened to me at Bay Hill happen again, where he knew what he had to do with a couple of holes left and ultimately came through with a birdie," said Mickelson, referring to the Orlando event three weeks ago where Woods birdied the final hole to edge Mickelson by a shot. "I wanted to be playing with him and know where we stand. Not only that, know where the rest of the field stands, because there's a lot of guys who potentially could win this golf tournament."

Indeed, there are 14 players within six shots of Woods, including second-round leader Chris DiMarco (72) and 1989 British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia (68) at 206; two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els (68), David Duval (70) and Argentina's Angel Cabrera (70), three back at 207; and Roccio Mediate (66) and Kirk Triplett (70) at 208.

"Obviously, Tiger is Tiger, and he's not going to back down," said Els, who finished second a year ago to Vijay Singh. "He's obviously the danger man out there. But there's a lot of talent on the leaderboard."

Woods talked as if his 68 were 78. "I just sort of plodded around," he said.

His plodding included birdies at the seventh and 11th holes. After hitting his ball over the green at the par-3 12th and making bogey, he birdied three straight to take the lead from a faltering Cabrera, who double-bogeyed the 15th to fall from the top spot.

"He just hits it so far ... literally, par is 68," said DiMarco, who played with Woods and was the only golfer among the top nine who didn't break par. "The par 5s are just long par 4s for him. Two or three times he hit sand wedge into holes where I was hitting 7-iron. That's definitely an easier shot, hitting a sand wedge in. That's why he's so good, because he doesn't look like he does anything and he shoots 68."

Mickelson typically takes a more adventurous path. He three-putted from 6 feet for bogey at the eighth hole and made double bogey at the 14th after a poor chip and another three-putt. But his six birdies offset those blunders.

"I do have confidence I can prevail," said Mickelson, who has played 30 majors as a pro without a win. "I'm looking forward to the challenge. I desperately want this, very much so. ... I have been preparing, not just this past year, but since I was a little kid, dreaming of this day. So (today) is a very important day for me."

* * *

TODAY ON TV: 4 p.m., Ch. 10.

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