- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - What it could have been: golf’s “Rumble in the Jungle.”

What it’s going to be: “Disgusta at Augusta.”

The clash of the titans that everybody in the sport was dying to see _ Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson in the final round of the Masters _ has already been relegated to the undercard.

“If Kenny and Chad go off and shoot two, three, four more under par … it almost puts it out of reach for us,” Woods said Saturday, after shooting a 70 that left him at 4-under, tied with Mickelson and trailing co-leaders Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera by seven shots and runner-up Chad Campbell by five.

“At this golf course funny things can happen and if you get momentum on your side and you’re making some birdies,” Mickelson said, pumping himself up, “you can make a lot of them.”

No doubt.

And thanks to the warm weather and suddenly user-friendly layout, plenty of people not named Tiger or Phil have been doing just that. Campbell went out in the opening round Thursday and birdied his first five holes to set one Masters record. Anthony Kim went out in round two Friday and made 11, another Masters record, en route to a 65 that was the lowest round recorded this week.

But the two biggest names in the game?

Not so much.

Woods has a dozen over 36 holes; Mickelson just 10, plus an eagle. The best hole either has played during the tournament was probably Lefty’s daunting par on 18 just to secure a place alongside Woods. He threaded his second shot out from under a stand of trees and over the huge scoreboard on the right side of the fairway, then hit a wedge to 6 feet and nervelessly rolled it home.

It’s almost a shame such spectacular shotmaking won’t mean much when the hardware is handed out Sunday.

“I think it would be fun,” Mickelson said about playing with Woods. “But it doesn’t really matter who I’m playing with.”

Please.

Let’s not get carried away.

Saying these two don’t like each other is like saying the lords of Augusta National are proud of the little lawn out behind their clubhouse.

Woods and Mickelson have had a low-level feud simmering about everything from the Ryder Cup to equipment since Woods’ emergence, but just four months ago, Woods’ caddie turned up the heat. At a charity dinner in his native New Zealand, Steve Williams hit Mickelson below the belt. He was quoted calling the left-hander an obscenity and then confirming to another newspaper that he doesn’t like the three-time major champion.

The strange thing is that based on their form so far, you have to like Mickelson’s chances of getting in the next punch when the two commence their tournament within a tournament during the final round.

He’s hitting the ball better, and after an erratic performance off the tee for most of the first two rounds, Mickelson righted himself. He made three birdies and the eagle to pull himself back from the brink of missing the cut and back into contention, driving it even better Saturday.

“Much better,” Mickelson said, “and it gave me an opportunity to be aggressive.

“The driver is going to be key,” he added a moment later, “because I’m going to have to attack a lot of pins.”

The odds tilt even further in Mickelson’s direction when you compare his upbeat demeanor and willingness to take risks with Woods’ cautious, near-robotic performance here. Despite a win at Bay Hill two weeks ago, there’s also the question of how much rust Woods has managed to scrape off his game after a nine-month layoff recovering from knee surgery.

“It’s not that at all,” Woods said about his readiness. “I just didn’t hit the ball as precise as I needed to today and just fought my (butt) off to get it back, just to shoot a number. As I said, I’m very proud of that.”

In a way, the pairing is reminiscent of 1980, when rivals Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer wound up paired on the final day at Augusta and carried along the lion’s share of the gallery _ even though they started the day a combined 31 strokes behind. Though Nicklaus and Palmer already owned 10 green jackets between them, Seve Ballesteros wound up having the blazer draped over his shoulders that day,

“I don’t care if they were in leg braces with seeing eye dogs, if Arnold and Jack showed up on the first tee it was going to be five thick the entire hole,” Bob Jones IV, grandson of the club founder, recounted in “Arnie & Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf’s Greatest Rivalry.”

So it will go again Sunday.

What happens between them won’t likely determine the outcome, perhaps not even whether this turns out to be a memorable Masters. But something the then 50-year-old Palmer said about his then 40-year-old rival, will probably be true about these two as well.

“We’ve always competed, and we always will,” said Palmer, who shot 69 to Nicklaus’ 73, “until he gets too old.”

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected]

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