- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga.

In the microwave world of sports, the world of LeBron James, Alex Ovechkin and Michelle Wie, some things still take time. Phil Mickelson, for instance.

Mickelson won his first PGA Tour event between keg parties at Arizona State. By the time he turned pro a year later, he was already considered a Nicklaus-in-training. But you know how these stories go. Most Nicklauses-in-training end up having a career closer to Gary Nicklaus’ than Jack’s.

In his first dozen years on the tour, Lefty teased us with 20 tournament victories … none of them majors. And as he lumbered into his mid-30s, it was only natural to wonder whether he was somehow missing something, whether maybe he hadn’t taken quite enough psychology classes at ASU.

But then he finally broke through in the 2004 Masters and, well, what do you think of him now? In the final round at Augusta National yesterday, he blew away a Who’s Who leader board en route to his second green jacket, his second straight major championship and his third overall. Tiger Woods lurked around the lead much of the afternoon but couldn’t catch Lefty. Neither could Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen or, try as he might, two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal.

After a tap-in birdie on the par-5 eighth, Mickelson left the field behind and made tracks toward history. After all, there’s every reason to believe he’ll add several more major trophies to his case before he’s through. At 35, he seems to have finally figured out how to bring his game to a fine sheen for the Weeks That Really Matter.

Woods has always had that capability — as have all of golf’s Mount Rushmore types. And with his near-flawless 69 yesterday — which left him at 7 under, two shots better than runner-up Tim Clark — Mickelson may be ready to take his place in the pantheon.

Lefty, whose final rounds once featured as many spills as thrills, has suddenly discovered a hiccup remedy. He wasn’t the slightest bit wobbly on the back nine, even with ‘92 Masters champ Fred Couples hanging close, Olazabal making a belated run and various other big names waiting for him to hit one in the water. He just set his jaw, Bill Cowher-like, and kept putting more and more distance between himself and his pursuers — four strokes by the time he reached the 16th tee.

“He’s a much better player than he was five years ago — or whenever it was he started winning these majors,” said Boom Boom, who came in at 71/4 under. “I think Phil can overpower a course the way Tiger can. He drove the ball really, really well today — I mean, long.

Mickelson’s unique two-driver strategy — one for fades, the other for draws — was largely responsible for that, he claimed. “I got 20, 25 more yards with this [Calloway FT-3] driver that draws. I needed it to combat the added length at Augusta. I even hit the draw [left to right] driver on fade [right to left] holes because I needed the [additional yardage].”

Most impressive, Mickelson prevailed on a toughened course that — just as the Greencoasts intended — yielded fewer low scores than it had in many years. Woods, who has pretty much owned the place, couldn’t break 70, despite finishing in a five-way tie for third at 4 under. Heck, even Lefty only broke 70 once, with his closing 69. (The same went for Clark.)

As Ben Crenshaw said of the new Augusta, “It’s hard for a guy to get on a run. It’s dangerous now.” But while the course may have a few more trap doors than it used to, it’s hardly a U.S. Open track. Olazabal, for instance, got back into the chase by going birdie-birdie-eagle at 13, 14 and 15.

But Couples’ appraisal of the part-5s, about them yielding “more sixes than fives,” was very much on the mark. This latest lengthening of Augusta appears to have brought it into balance; it’s now as risky as it is rewarding. And as we saw yesterday, that ain’t bad.

“I think it was two pretty easy rounds of golf — except for my putting exhibitions,” Couples said of his and Mickelson’s efforts. “He made a great par on 10, but other than that he was right there [on every hole] until the 18th [when Lefty had his only bogey]. … I was as close or closer than he was on the greens.

“I didn’t feel like I was 46. I didn’t hit the ball like I was. I putted like I was 66.” Yes, those three three-putt greens [Nos. 8, 11 and 14] — and a couple of other makeables he wishes he had back — really were all that separated the two.

Golf seems to specialize in late bloomers these days. Nick Price didn’t win his first major title until he was 35 — and wound up winning three. Vijay Singh’s career path is identical. But Mickelson’s gifts put you in mind of another late-bloomer, a guy who won his first major at 34 (a year later than Phil) and didn’t stop until his total reached nine. Fellow named Hogan.

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