- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Lefty’s serious major credentials finally have given golf its long-awaited rousing rivalry.

Feasting on a soft course and a floundering field, Phil Mickelson cruised around Augusta National in 69 strokes yesterday afternoon, claiming his second green jacket in stress-free fashion at the 70th Masters.

“This is a very special day that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid and that I’ll cherish forever,” said the 35-year-old Mickelson (7-under, 281), who survived charges from nostalgic favorite Fred Couples (284), world No.1 Tiger Woods (284) and gutsy South African Tim Clark (283) to collect his third major title.

And while his initial uprising at Augusta National two years ago was unquestionably more emotional, ending a much-discussed 0-for-46 drought in golf’s coveted Slams, yesterday’s victory vaults him into far more prestigious company.

“They’re different because in ‘04 I felt this great sense of relief that I could finally come through and win this tournament and prove to myself that I could win one of these four majors,” said Mickelson, who also blistered the field by 13 strokes at last week’s BellSouth Classic and now has 29 PGA Tour victories. “This one was more a great sense of satisfaction that I could beat such a great field.”

Yesterday’s laurels give Lefty two straight Slam titles dating back to last season’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol. The last player other than Woods to achieve such a feat was Nick Price, who won the British Open and PGA Championship in 1994. His three major victories push him into a elite group among active players, as he joins only Woods (10), Ernie Els (3) and Vijay Singh (3) in the category.

And perhaps most impressively, his three titles in the last nine majors give him an even stronger current Slam streak than Woods (2-for-9). Nobody missed the symbolism when Woods, the defending champion, helped Mickelson into the green jacket last night. Golf has its clear Yin and Yang — its ultra-talented foils, opposites and rivals.

In fact, Lefty even won his second 42 long in Tigeresque fashion yesterday, playing unflappably steady golf while his challengers folded around him.

After cleaning up a third-round 70 yesterday morning, Mickelson found himself tied with Couples at 4-under through 54 and matched with the 46-year-old sentimental favorite from Seattle in the event’s final pairing.

The 1992 Masters champion and long one of the game’s most popular players, Couples prompted the golf world to indulge in a little nostalgia. After all, this week’s tournament marked the 20th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ career opus. Could Boom Boom match the Golden Bear with a renaissance bolt at the age of 46?

Couples certainly hit the ball well enough yesterday to duplicate the feat. But the club which has betrayed him almost as much as his balky back throughout his career doused yesterday’s potential drama. Despite some sterling ball striking, Couples missed a shocking five putts inside of four feet, culminating with a galling 3-putt from four feet at the 14th. Couples came to the hole at 5-under with a point-blank chance to draw within one stroke of Mickelson and walked off with a suspense-sapping bogey that would have forced the most shameless rubbernecker to avert his eyes.

“The 14th hole was really a killer, but there were several other putts — I just couldn’t get one to go,” Couples said. “I think if Phil was putting for me, I would have won with 9- or 10-under.”

The same could be said for Woods, who was marvelous from tee to green but helpless on Augusta National’s treacherous greens. Woods began the final round two behind Mickelson and Couples at 2-under but missed an outrageous nine putts inside of 12 feet en route to a closing 70 that could have easily been a 65.

“That was the best I’ve hit it in years,” said Woods, incredulous after his normally reliable short stick sabotaged his bid for a fifth green jacket. “I was so in control of my ball from tee to green. But once I got on the green, I was a spaz. This is the most 3-putts [six] I’ve ever had here. If I only putt like I normally do today, I might have given Phil a little bit of a battle. … I’m probably going to snap this putter in about eight pieces.”

But neither Woods nor Couples nor any other member of the 47-man field who survived the cut could muster a stretch-run challenge to Mickelson, who led the field in driving distance this week (299.25 yards) with his dual-driver formula and didn’t card a bogey during yesterday’s finale until the 18th hole. And by that time, the outcome had long been decided.

Playing error-free golf and overwhelming the lengthened 7,445-yard layout with his duo of drivers, Mickelson carded short-range birdies at Nos. 7, 8, 13 and 15, the last of which gave him a massive four-stroke cushion with three to play over Couples, Woods and Clark.

“It was a huge help this week, because it helped me to combat the added length,” Mickelson said of his two-driver attack.

“I don’t think it will become a mainstay in my bag. I did it last week to prepare for this event. But I don’t know another golf course where length is as much of a factor as it is here.”

Credit Mickelson with creativity for the move, which added to the his patience and precision this week yielded a final-round major rout that wasn’t nearly as close as the final scores suggest.

“I loved it. The stress-free walk up 18 was incredible,” Mickelson said. “I’m having so much fun being able to compete for major championships, it’s just incredible. And to win a couple now, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

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