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Above the crowd

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There was no two-footed leap or two-fisted pump, no deep sigh of relief after years of frustration. That was the way Phil Mickelson celebrated his first victory at Augusta National and the first major championship of what had been a star-crossed career.

The stars are no longer crossed for Mickelson. They are perfectly aligned, as evidenced by what Mickelson, 35, did in winning the 70th Masters yesterday with a final round of 3-under-par 69 and a four-round total of 7-under 281. It was his third major victory and second in a row after last year's PGA Championship.

Unlike the first two, which each came down to the left-hander making a birdie putt on the final hole of regulation, Mickelson had built a three-stroke lead going into the par-4 18th, where he made his only bogey of the round to win by two shots over Tim Clark of South Africa.

Five players - four-time and defending champion Tiger Woods, two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, former champion Fred Couples, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa and Chad Campbell - finished tied for third at 4-under 284.

The caliber of the contenders he held off was as gratifying as the win itself to Mickelson.

"It felt incredible, having the three-shot lead and knowing that victory was at hand," said Mickelson, who also became the first player in 18 years to win the Masters after winning the week before, in this case a 13-stroke runaway triumph at the BellSouth Classic. "It was very stressful in 2004, but it felt very, very different today.

"The difference is that I felt a sense of relief after I broke through and won a major and today I felt this great feeling of accomplishment to beat guys like Tiger and Ernie Els and Vijay [Singh] and Fred and some incredible and talented players. And to come out on top, it's a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment."

Starting early in the morning three strokes behind Chad Campbell for the conclusion of the rain-delayed third round, Mickelson took a one-shot lead over Couples and Campbell to the first tee in the afternoon, found himself tied after Couples birdied the opening hole and grabbed the lead for good with a birdie on the par-5 eighth.

The lead grew to two strokes when Couples bogeyed the par-4 11th, to three when the 1992 champion three-putted from inside 5 feet for bogey on the par-4 14th and to four when Mickelson nearly chipped in for eagle on the par-5 15th before settling for another birdie, one of four he made in the final round.

"When 14 happened where he ended up having a little mishap there, you don't want to win like that," Mickelson said. "If he knocks that first putt in, we would have had one heck of a time that final four holes, and I wanted to see that happen. As much as I wanted to win this tournament, I was sorry to see that happen."

Couples, at 46 and 6 months, was looking to become the oldest champion in Masters history 20 years after Jack Nicklaus won here for the sixth time at the age of 46 and 3 months.

"I'm disappointed, but I liked the way I played and it was a lot of fun," Couples said. "I'm certainly tired now, but I made it through 31 holes [played yesterday] and hung in there a long time."

The same can be said for Mickelson in terms of his career. After coming close several times in majors during his first 12 years on the PGA Tour, including three seconds and finishing third six times, including here on three occasions, Mickelson has won a major in each of the past three years, joining Woods as the only players to do that in the past 20 years.

The victory was the 29th of his career for Mickelson, who became the 16th straight Masters champion to play in the final group of the day. It also puts him halfway to the record of four straight major championships that Woods finished here in 2001 after winning the last three in 2000.

"Well, let's settle down Grand Slam talk and stuff," said Mickelson, who will be a huge fan and betting favorite at the U.S. Open in June at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., not far from where he won the PGA Championship last summer at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J. "You call it the Tiger Slam, to hold all four majors, incredible."

Woods was never a factor yesterday. After nearly playing his way off the leader board with his first-ever string of three straight bogeys at the Masters on the back nine of his third round, Woods climbed back into contention by finishing the round with a par save on the 17th hole and a birdie on the 18th to start two behind Mickelson.

A birdie on the par-5 second pulled Woods within a stroke, but he immediately missed a chance to tie for the lead when he pulled a 6-foot putt for birdie on the par-4 third. Woods then narrowly missed a 40-footer for birdie on the par-3 fourth and missed a 4-footer for par on the par-3 sixth.

"If I had made a few putts, I could have given Phil more of a run," Woods said. "I was hitting it the best I have in years, last round of a major, just like you'd like, but I just absolutely lost it out there on the greens. I'm probably going to go snap this putter in about eight pieces."

Mickelson's putter was solid, but what helped him win this Masters were his drivers. Using one for his draw and one for his power fade as he did the week before at the BellSouth, Mickelson was rarely, if ever, in trouble off the tee.

"I wouldn't say I played flawless today, because I feel like I played far from it," Mickelson said. "But I was able to manage my misses and control my misses, and then on the back nine, I drove it as good as I probably ever have."

Said Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing coach: "To me, the way he played, that was the best round of all the rounds I've ever seen him play [in a major]."

And the most relaxed Mickelson has been in a while. After sharing some hugs with his wife, Amy, and their three small children, Mickelson relished getting another green jacket. The first time it came from fellow left-hander Mike Weir of Canada, but last night it came from Woods, his longtime nemesis and now his legitimate rival.

Mickelson showed his sensitivity in asking the crowd at the jacket ceremony to say a prayer for Woods' father, Earl, who is at home in California suffering from cancer. And later, Mickelson showed his sense of humor when somebody asked if he wouldn't mind trading off the jacket every year with Woods.

"Well, I don't really want to trade next year," Mickelson said. "I certainly enjoyed having the jacket put on me rather than it on [Woods]."

In this case, one sleeve at a time.

don.markus@baltsun.com

HOW THEY FINISHED

The winner

Phil Mickelson 70-72-70-69-281

Selected followers

Tim Clark 70-72-72-69-283

J. Maria Olazabal 76-71-71-66-284

Retief Goosen 70-73-72-69-284

Tiger Woods 72-71-71-70-284

Fred Couples 71-70-72-71-284

Chad Campbell 71-67-75-71-284

Angel Cabrera 73-74-70-68-285

Vijay Singh 67-74-73-71-285

Stewart Cink 72-73-71-70-286

Mike Weir 71-73-73-70-287

Davis Love III 74-71-74-72-291

Ernie Els 71-71-74-76-292

Rocco Mediate 68-73-73-80-294

Sergio Garcia 72-74-79-73-298

Ben Crenshaw 71-72-78-79-300

Complete scores, PG 8D

WINNING LINK

With his victory yesterday, Phil Mickelson joins Tiger Woods as the only men's golfers in the past 20 years to win at least one major in three consecutive years.

Mickelson (2004-2006)

2004: Masters

2005: PGA Championship

2006: Masters

Woods (1999-2002)

1999: PGA Championship

2000: U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship

2001: Masters

2002: Masters, U.S. Open

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