Mickelson a new man


AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods met in Butler Cabin for the second straight year at the Masters for a role reversal not seen at Augusta National in more than 40 years.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer – rivals briefly, driving forces as long as they played – took turns helping each other into the green jacket for three straight Masters ending in 1965. The scene was replayed Sunday evening when Woods, the defending champion, fit Mickelson into the fabled prize.

“I don’t really want to trade next year,” Mickelson said after his two-shot victory.

But this role reversal was about more than a green jacket presentation. Two players separated by everything but raw talent looked strikingly familiar in winning the Masters on a super-sized course.

Augusta National was longer than ever in 2002 when Woods went into the final round tied for the lead with U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, two shots clear of Vijay Singh, with Ernie Els, Mickelson and Sergio Garcia another two shots behind. Woods built a lead and knew his challengers would have to make birdies. They all crashed trying to catch him.

The course was even longer for this year’s Masters, softened slightly by rain.

Mickelson was one shot ahead of former Masters champion Fred Couples, with Woods and Singh two shots behind, followed by Goosen and Els. There were 10 players within three shots of the lead, most of them major champions. Mickelson took a two-shot lead and knew par would be his friend. Couples and Woods couldn’t make a putt, Singh couldn’t deliver a great shot when he needed it. Along the way, people had to wonder: Who was this guy?

Mickelson carved out a reputation as “Phil the Thrill,” a gunslinger whose sole mission was to attack flags and keep everyone entertained with every shot. Even his first two majors kept everyone in suspense to the end – five birdies on the last seven holes to win the 04 Masters, a flop shot from deep rough to tap-in range on the 72nd hole at Baltusrol in the PGA Championship last summer.

This time, he managed to make the Masters boring – which was fine with him.

“The stress-free walk up 18 was incredible. I had been wanting that,” Mickelson said. “I had actually been wanting a four- or five-shot lead, but three was OK, too.”

For a second – even though he was joking – he sounded like the Mickelson of old.

Lefty didn’t endear himself to many people five years ago at the PGA Championship in Atlanta when he opened with a 66 and told CBS Sports that he not only wanted to win, but by a certain margin of victory. He was asked later what number he had in mind.

“I’m not going to say. Doesn’t sound good,” he said with a smile.

He wound up losing by one shot to David Toms, who laid up on the 18th and made a 10-foot par save.

It took Mickelson a dozen years and 42 majors, but he finally figured out how to win the majors. He strove to keep the ball in play, even using two drivers – the joke was he tried to help Callaway win the driver count – at this Masters. He also crammed for the majors as if they were final exams, spending eight hours in a practice round ahead of the tournament to study how to save shots.

Even on par 5s he could reach in two on the back nine of Augusta, he reminded himself that par was a good score (typical Phil, he birdied both of them, anyway, making him 13 under on the par 5s at the Masters).

The results – three majors in his last nine starts – have changed his reputation, if not his legacy.

“There’s no doubt he’s changed,” Couples said. “He’s an incredible player. He’s got more talent than maybe anyone out here in his hands. You’ve got, obviously, Tiger. You’ve got Ernie Els and Retief, and those are great, great players. But I think Phil can overpower a golf course like Tiger can.

“He’s a much better player than he was five years ago.”

It’s easy to get carried away with whoever just won the last major. Even with his second Masters title, Mickelson still only has as many majors as Els and Singh among active players, and he still lags seven majors behind Woods.

But Mickelson is worth closer inspection.

He now has won a major in three straight seasons, joining Woods as the only players to have done that in the last 20 years. Only five other players – Tom Watson, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Peter Thomson and Ralph Guldahl – have won majors in at least three consecutive years since the Masters was created in 1934.

And there is one more link to Woods unrelated to the majors.

A week before the Masters, Mickelson honed his game by winning the BellSouth Classic by 13 shots, a margin of victory rarely seen. Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 and the Masters by 12, and he won two PGA Tour events by 11. The only other active player to win in double digits was two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, by 12 shots at Firestone in 1990.

Two spectacular weeks in Georgia elevated Mickelson to No. 2 in the world, primed for his biggest season ever.

The slogan in a popular commercial with Mickelson used to be, “What will Phil do next?”

Now, it seems to be more a matter of when.

AP-ES-04-10-06 1723EDT