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GOLF

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson steal the show at the Masters

Paired together for the final round, the world's top two players put on a riveting performance.

April 13, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM AUGUSTA, GA. — It wasn't a pairing, it was a prizefight, two heavyweights bouncing improbably off a gentle green canvas for 18 furious rounds.

Phil Mickelson landed a left hook, and the pine trees roared.

Tiger Woods replied with a right jab, and the azaleas howled.

The final day of the world's most elegant golf championship was hijacked Sunday by two guys swinging grudges as steely as their clubs, fighting for a belt as well as a jacket.

They nearly stole the jacket. They did steal the Masters.

It was won in a bumbling two-hole playoff by Angel Cabrera over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, but the real story ended a couple of hours earlier, when Mickelson and Woods exhaustedly wobbled off the 18th green as if looking for a stool.

Together, they had begun the day seven strokes off the lead. Together, they charged back to within a tee length of the top before finally collapsing in perspiration and poor judgment.

Mickelson tied a course record with a front-nine 30, shot five-under-par 67 and finished in fifth place at nine under.

Woods had an eagle and four birdies, and finished with a four-under 68, tying him for sixth place at eight under.

It would be chilling enough if they had these final-day rounds on the same Augusta National course. Imagine, then, the static that buzzed through the pines as this greatness sparred in the same pairing.

There have rarely been bigger crowds here for a single twosome, thousands snaking through the course at their sides, folks standing 10 deep for seemingly every step.

There has perhaps never been a louder crowd for an early Sunday twosome, nearly 7,000 yards' worth of standing ovations, crazy shouts with every shot.

People shoved for better position. People leaped over each other for better views.

"They were going nuts," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson's caddie. "They were really digging it."

They weren't the only ones.

"This was the most fun I've ever had on a golf course," said Mackay, who has carried a bag for 20 years, including for each of Mickelson's three major championships.

It was written here that because they started an hour earlier and seven strokes behind the leaders, Woods and Mickelson would be an empty pairing.

Even before they took their first swing, I was proven wrong.

Did you see their greeting on the first tee? The two guys have known each other for at least 15 years, spent most of their professional lives together on golf's top rung, and what did they do?

They stiffly and distantly shook hands as if they had just met.

No man hug. No back slap. Nothing that would even remotely indicate that they were even remotely friends.

Which, of course, they're not, but who would have thought they would be so obvious about it.

Last winter, Woods' caddie, Stevie Williams, ripped Mickelson, saying, "I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player because I hate the . . . ."

Woods never truly reprimanded Williams for the comment, showing that he probably agreed with the assessment. Even after they had exhausted their physical resources Sunday, their feelings burned.

Hey Tiger, how much fun was it to be playing with Phil today?

"Well, you just go about your business," he said.

Hey Phil, did you guys feed off each other?

"I don't think we were really paying much attention to what the other was doing," he said.

Nobody who watched would agree.

"It was very, very cool," Mackay said.

Mickelson wore a black shirt. Woods wore a red shirt. At times they were like pieces in a game of checkers, hopping over each other, bouncing around each other, crowning each other.

It started with Mickelson, with birdies on six of the first eight holes, highlighted by an approach shot around a tree to within a couple of feet of the pin on the seventh hole, and the crowd was in a tizzy.

"You don't know where your ball lands, but you look up and see people jumping up and down around the green and high-fiving each other, so you get an idea," Mackay said. "That's how it was the whole day."

Now it was Tiger's turn, with a great approach and long putt giving him an eagle on the eighth hole, and the game was on.

"It was like, great shot . . . great shot . . . great shot," Mackay said.

Back and forth they went, until, finally, for Mickelson, the magic genuflected in Amen Corner. On the 12th hole, he boldly used a nine-iron where most golfers used an eight, and pushed the ball into the water.

Mickelson then blew his final good chance on the 15th, when he missed a short eagle putt because he was trying to go to school on Woods, who missed an earlier putt that broke right.

"I felt like it initially was going to break left, and then Tiger's putt . . . went right, and I just didn't trust my read," he said.

But other than that, you never even noticed him, right, Phil? Right.

Woods took advantage of this opening to work in three birdies in four holes, and both men were within a couple of shots of the lead on the final two holes, until it appeared that the duel finally wore them down at the end.

Woods will be remembered for hitting his second shot on the 18th hole off a tree. Mickelson will be remembered for botching a chip on the same hole.

When it finally ended, an irritated Woods answered only a couple of questions, an exhausted Mickelson answered only a couple more, and separately they receded into the Augusta shadows.

Rarely have they looked so tired and distracted. Rarely have they seemed so eager to disappear.

On this day, perhaps, the history that defined them may have also denied them.

Said Mickelson: "It was fun."

Said Woods: "It was terrible."

In the bloody, brilliant wake of one of the most compelling Sunday duels in Masters history, one could safely agree with both.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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