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BILL DWYRE

Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and Jhonattan Vegas produce riveting drama at Torrey Pines

Watson prevails by one stroke over Mickelson in a game of can-you-top-this shot-making that turns the final holes of the Farmers Insurance Open into grand theater.

January 30, 2011|Bill Dwyre

From La Jolla — A magical Sunday finish that included an icon named Phil, another sweet-swinging lefty named Bubba and a surprisingly gifted newcomer named Vegas validated once again the PGA Tour's marketing axiom.

These guys are good.

On a cool and cloudy day overlooking the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, where they played the Farmers Insurance Open on the challenging South Course at Torrey Pines, this trio of golfers wrote a last chapter that would have made O. Henry proud.

Coming to the 17th hole, Phil Mickelson was 13 under par, Jhonattan Vegas 14 under and Bubba Watson 15 under. All day, they had taken runs at each other. Each was like a rider in the Tour de France, trying to break out of the pack.

The others were having none of it. There would be no Lance Armstrong until the very end.

It was a fascinating trio. Watson and Vegas played together in the next-to-last threesome and Mickelson was in the last group.

Watson is a 32-year-old tour veteran known mostly for drives that spend more time in space than rookie astronauts. He won one tour event last year, plus $3.2 million in purses, and made the Ryder Cup team. But he is also just six years off the Nationwide Tour and says his tendency is to be scattered and unfocused.

"I've never been to a doctor to see if I have ADD [attention deficit disorder]," he said, "but if we're just guessing, I probably do."

Vegas is 26, from Venezuela by way of the University of Texas. He won last week at the Bob Hope Classic after, incredibly, hitting a tee shot into the water in the playoff. Odds in Vegas on Vegas would have been that he would have folded by No. 17.

The resume of Mickelson, a 40-year-old hometown hero, needs no elaboration. He has won Grand Slams, millions of dollars and the hearts of a similar number of golf fans. He had won this event three times before and was the obvious rooting favorite Sunday.

The crescendo of golfing magic that had been building all day worked its way to No. 17, a 442-yard par four. A cloudburst had just ended when Vegas hit his approach 30 feet from the pin, on a ridge that would make his downhill birdie chance like putting on a sidewalk. Watson's approach flew over the green and into in a deep clump of grass.

On the fairway behind them, Mickelson had driven it to within 113 yards.

Watson's task was toughest. The pin was 10 feet away, down a hill. He had to get the ball out of high grass and make it stop close enough for a decent run at par. Watson, immortal at this moment, opened his clubface so far that it rested flat on the ground and then popped the ball up and to a stop six feet past the pin.

Vegas' birdie putt was the same one Billy Mayfair had had two groups earlier. Mayfair had barely touched it and the ball stopped just off the hole. Vegas hit it four feet past and, with Mickelson lurking, Watson and Vegas each had gut-wrenchers to save par. Watson went first and guided it into the hole as if there was never a doubt. Vegas did the same.

Mickelson needed a birdie for any chance at all. He walked all the way up onto the green, surveyed the ridges, walked back and hit a lob wedge to 2 1/2 feet. He rolled it in and walked to the 18th tee tied with Vegas and a shot shy of Watson.

This was the best theater golf has to offer. The fans in the gallery were beside themselves. Guys in the TV truck were drooling.

Ahead, on the 520-yard par-five 18th, Vegas had driven the ball in the rough, off the edge of a trap, and 215 yards away. Watson was in nearly the same place he had been Saturday, 186 yards from the pin. Saturday, he hit what he called "a perfect seven iron," and sank an eagle putt.

Sunday, Vegas went first and did what he had done last Sunday — knocked it into the water.

The trio in search of the title was now a pair.

Watson hit the same club as Saturday, but not with the same result. He pushed it left into the trap, but somehow, even though the lip of the trap was impeding his backswing, he scooped it out and to within 10 feet. If he made the putt, Mickelson would have to make an eagle to tie, and he had laid up 72 yards away. If Watson missed his birdie putt, a delicate, downhill toughie, Mickelson could pitch up and tie with a birdie.

Incredibly, Watson rolled it in.

More incredibly, Mickelson still thought he had a chance. With several thousand in the gallery watching in amazement, he walked all the way up to the green, surveyed the pin and its surroundings, walked back to his ball and sent his caddie to tend the pin.

He wasn't just half-heartedly going for it. He was GOING FOR IT! He wanted the pin pulled so the ball could drop in on the fly.

"A dozen times a year," he said later, "I hit the pin and the ball ricochets away."

In as hypnotic a moment as you'll find on a golf course, Mickelson stood over his 64-degree wedge, swung and hit the ball right at the pin. It landed, went past, and spun back to four feet.

It was over. Watson had won.

Mickelson made his birdie putt for second place, but the really revealing moment occurred just before that, when he walked up to repair his ball mark.

It was two inches directly left of the hole.

These guys are good.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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