- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

DULUTH, Ga. It almost seems fate has a vendetta against Phil Mickelson.

Lady Luck showed up at Atlanta Athletic Club yesterday feeling particularly flirtatious and showering practically every player in the 83rd PGA Championship with an outrageous array of kisses.

Except Mickelson.

Luck, nothing more complex, is the only thing that stands between Mickelson and third-round leader David Toms. And unless yesterday's fickle lady decides to switch suitors, luck and not execution might be remembered as the only thing that stood between Lefty and his long-awaited major breakthrough.

Thanks to a 243-yard ace on the brutish, par-3, 15th on the Highlands Course, Toms (14 under) takes a two-stroke lead over Mickelson into today's finale at AAC. Toms' miraculous 5-wood propelled him to a second consecutive 65 and a total of 196, the lowest 54-hole score in PGA Championship history.

"That was the coolest shot I've ever hit," said the 34-year-old Toms, who has five regular Tour victories to his credit but also is seeking his first major triumph. "It was kind of a struggle the whole day until then, but that certainly turned the momentum around."

Toms' shot, one of the most remarkable in the game's history, came with the Louisiana native at 11 under and trailing Mickelson by one stroke. It came during a round in which he also jarred two birdie bombs of longer than 30 feet. It came on the most excruciatingly long par-3 in the majors this side of Carnoustie's 16th. And, most importantly, it came courtesy of a very kind flagstick.

The Ace was recorded when Toms' 5-wood landed midway into the green and bounded toward the back-center pin placement at warp speed. Toms' shot appeared ticketed for the back bunker, but the stick simply got in the way, resulting in the most dramatic sports moment in Atlanta since Kevin Dyson reached in vain toward the end zone on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV.

Toms' shot wasn't the first bit of incomparable magic that took place on the property only the most spectacular. Earlier in the day, Nick Faldo (2 over) had recorded a hole-in-one on the 204-yard, fourth hole, and Tiger Woods (1 under) had holed an approach at the ninth for an eagle.

And before the day was through, Japan's Shingo Katayama (10 under) had worked several miracles, once stopping a ball on a stone precipice above the water (No. 17), once skipping it over the water (when a Koi must have spit it back at the 18th) and once running a skulled wood through a bunker and onto a green (No. 14).

Somehow, Mickelson missed out on all the magic taking place on the property. In fact, his was a day defined by brilliant ball-striking and suspect fortune. Twice he nearly holed out approach shots, his 8-iron on No. 14 literally taking a tour of the cup before cruelly squirting out.

Still, Mickelson was so on top of his game after an early, double-bogey hiccup at the third that it didn't really seem to matter. He spent all day crushing drives and battering down pins, recording a startling eight birdies, including six from inside eight feet.

But just before Toms recorded his epic ace, Mickelson played the same hole at 13 under with a similar shot and very different results. Mickelson scorched a 4-iron just left of the flag at the 15th. But instead of taking the break back toward the pin, it bounded straight on through the green and trickled just up against the cut-line of the fringe. Mickelson's bid from 243 yards was just 16 feet away from the pin, but he had no play with his ball nestled against the collar. He bellied a wedge 12 feet past and missed the putt to drop to 12 under.

After a birdie at the 16th, almost the same thing happened to him at the 17th when his 5-iron on the 215-yard, par-3 landed directly in front of the pin, scooted just past the hole and barely hopped the fringe into a virtually unplayable lie in the treacherous Bermuda rough.

Once again, he was less than two feet off the green and less than 20 feet from the pin, but he had no play. Another blasted lob wedge and two putts from 30 feet later, and Mickelson was trailing at 12 under and visibly sagging.

"I hit those two shots as solid and on-line as any I hit all day," said Mickelson, who has 13 top-10s in the majors without a victory. "It's impossible to be too disappointed after three 66s, but I did feel that I was a little unfortunate with the bogeys on the par 3s. It's better that that stuff happens today than tomorrow.

"But to be only two shots off the lead and playing with the leader on the final day with a great opportunity to win, that's the ultimate goal."

Mickelson and Toms have already gone head-to-head once before this season, when Toms surged from six back on the final day of the Compaq Classic of New Orleans to post a 64 and clip a wavering Mickelson (72) by two.

"That's something that I still remember, and I would very much like to steal one from him," said Mickelson.

At first blush, you might assume the No. 2 player in the world would have a major edge in this showdown against this relatively anonymous No. 19. You might assume a man who has been there so many times would have an advantage over a player who has never slept on a Saturday-night lead at a major. But this is the same Mickelson who has been dissolving before our eyes in these situations for years. And Toms is a fierce competitor who seems to have fate on his side.

When asked to evaluate whether Mickelson's negative experiences or his lack of experience would play a bigger role, Toms said, "I'd say it's a push. There will be more people expecting him to win than me, so maybe that takes a little bit of pressure off me. But inside, I expect myself to do well. I've played well enough to get myself in this position, and I know I have game to handle it."

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