- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Phil Mickelson got off the first pump of his enticing head-to-head duel with Tiger Woods, surging into contention in the final round of the Masters.

Playing with Woods in front of a gallery that was five-deep in places, Mickelson birdied five of the first seven holes, pulling within two strokes of Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera not long after the co-leaders teed off in the last pairing at 11-under 205.

Woods and Mickelson both faced a daunting seven-stroke deficit at the start of play. Lefty made the early move, taking advantage of two of the easiest holes on the course for back-to-back birdies at Nos. 2 and 3. When a 12-footer curled in for another birdie at the fifth, he pumped his left fist twice _ Woods’ trademark move after a big shot.

Mickelson’s pinpoint tee shot to the bottom of the hill at the par-3 sixth left him with only about 4 feet for birdie. He rolled that one in, too.

Woods, playing with Mickelson in the final round of a major for only the third time, managed just one birdie through seven holes and was still six shots behind.

This was the fourth straight round played in warm, sunny conditions. The course could be there for the taking, especially with the greens still a bit soft after severe storms swept through Georgia following the second round.

Cabrera and Perry already had put up the lowest 54-hole score in seven years, and Mickelson’s start raised expectations for a a thrilling final round that would be decided in a back-nine shootout. That was the sort of finish that used to be a Masters trademark but faded away in recent years after the course was lengthened and toughened.

Teeing off about an hour ahead of the leaders, the world’s first- and second-ranked players drew a mammoth gallery at Augusta National, both hoping to win a major for the first time coming from behind on the final round.

Mickelson was the first to arrive at the No. 1 tee. Woods strolled up next, the two rivals greeting each other with a firm handshake and a bit of a staredown.

Perhaps a little too pumped up, they badly hooked their opening tee shots _ Mickelson’s going right, Woods’ sailing left _ but each managed to escape with a par. Woods’ ball actually ended up between the eighth and ninth fairways, ricocheting off a pine tree. Lefty wound up in the trees right of the fairway.

Mickelson somehow reached the green with his second shot, badly misread a birdie putt and had to make a testy 3-footer to save par. Woods’ blocked his second shot, winding up short and right of the green, but a deft touch with the wedge left him a tap-in for par.

More early fireworks were provided by Steve Flesch, who started the day eight strokes back and needing the greatest final-round comeback in Masters history to win.

The left-hander holed out from the fairway for an eagle at par-5 second, then rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt at the third hole, the shortest of the par-4s, to quickly slice three strokes off his deficit.

Cabrera and Perry were being chased by Chad Campbell, who led after an opening-round 65 and was still tied for the lead after 36 holes. The soft-spoken Texan made a double bogey at No. 16 on Saturday, leaving him two strokes back heading to the final round.

Jim Furyk started at 208, followed by Steve Stricker at 209. The group at 210 included Shingo Katayama, Todd Hamilton and Rory Sabbatini.

Perry was trying to win his first major title at age 48, coming off the high of helping the U.S. win the Ryder Cup in his home state last fall. The Kentuckian also could become the oldest major champion in golf history. He’s about four months older than Julius Boros when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship.

Cabrera was trying to win his second major title, having bested Woods and Furyk at the 2007 U.S. Open. A win by the Argentine would help make up for an infamous mistake by countryman Roberto De Vicenzo, who signed for a wrong score at the 1968 Masters, costing him a chance to go to a playoff with Bob Goalby.

Woods and Mickelson were playing together in the final round at Augusta for the second time. In 2001, Woods went to the final round with a one-stroke lead over Lefty and wrapped up an unprecedented fourth straight major title _ the Tiger Slam _ with a 68. Mickelson shot 70 and settled for third, three strokes behind.

Their other final-round pairing in a major came at the 1997 PGA Championship, where they closed with 75 in a tournament won by Davis Love III.

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