- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Phil Mickelson got off the first fist pump of his supercharged head-to-head duel with Tiger Woods, tied a Masters record on the front side and surged into contention for his third green jacket.

Lefty shot a 6-under 30 over the first nine holes at Augusta National, making the turn just one stroke behind leader Kenny Perry after starting Sunday’s round with a daunting seven-stroke deficit.

The atmosphere on a warm, sunny day was electric, the roars returning to Augusta after some lackluster finishes in recent years.

Mickelson, playing with Woods in front of a gallery that was 10-deep in places, provided many of the thrills with his dazzling play on the front side. He was trying to pull off one of the greatest final-day comebacks in major championship history and add another Masters title to the ones he captured in 2004 and ‘06.

Mickelson pulled off a brilliant hook around the trees for a tap-in birdie at No. 7, his best shot of many, and his par at the ninth was nearly as good. He drove deep into the pines right of the fairway, and his escape wound up in the deep bunker fronting the left side of the green. He blasted out to about 5 feet above the flag and sank the slippery putt for a brilliant 4.

Needing only 30 strokes to cover the first nine holes, Mickelson tied the front-nine mark set by Johnny Miller in 1975 and equaled by Greg Norman in 1988 and K.J. Choi in 2004.

Perry and Angel Cabrera teed off as the co-leaders at 11-under 205, but most of the excitement was provided by the group in front of them. Woods and Mickelson, the world’s first- and second-ranked players, were playing together in the final round of a major for only the third time.

Lefty made the biggest 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.

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 managed just one birdie through seven holes, matching Mickelson at No. 2, but he climbed the leaderboard with a 30-foot eagle putt at 8. Tiger made the turn with a 33, four strokes behind Perry.

Cabrera briefly claimed the lead all to himself with a birdie at the third, but two straight bogies knocked him into a tie with a Mickelson and Chad Campbell.

This was the fourth straight round played in warm, sunny conditions. The course looked ripe 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 front nine raised hopes for a thrilling final round 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, Mickelson and Woods were 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. But he couldn’t keep it going, making the turn five strokes back.

Campbell 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. But a birdie at No. 3 kept him right in the thick of things.

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.

Perry started with seven straight pars, missing a great chance to extend his lead when he missed a 5-foot birdie try at No. 7.

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.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects 11th graf to make it bogies sted birdies. AP Video.)

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