Can Mickelson tie knot?

Bridesmaid in majors, he heads down aisle of last 18 tied for lead

Lefty is winless in 42 majors

Third in past 3 Masters, he, DiMarco are at 210

`I've enjoyed challenge'

The Masters

April 11, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Sleeping on the lead going into the final round of a major golf championship is much like trying to get a few winks before your wedding day: You hope to rest enough so that you don't trip going down the aisle.

Phil Mickelson, who has spent a star-crossed career catching golf's bouquets without winning a single major tournament, took half of this proverbial bed last night here in the 68th Masters at Augusta National while Chris DiMarco plopped onto the other side of this often lumpy mattress.

At 6-under-par 210, Mickelson and DiMarco share a two-stroke lead over Englishman Paul Casey going into the final round. Two-time champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, three-time major champion Ernie Els of South Africa and K.J. Choi of Korea were three back.

"I've really enjoyed the challenge of trying to break through because it has been so difficult," said Mickelson, 33, who has finished third here the past three years and has been in the top 10 in 17 of the 42 majors in which he has played as a pro. "Things are much more rewarding when they are difficult."

Said DiMarco, 35: "The advantage to being in the last group means you have the lowest score, so that's good. ... I'm certainly going to be nervous tomorrow ... but I've learned to handle it better."

Mickelson, in fact, was surprised to find out that he had never even shared a lead going into the final round of a major. What intrigued him even more was the statistic brought to his attention by a local reporter: The past 13 Masters champions have come from the final group on Sunday.

"I didn't know that, but I like that stat," said Mickelson, who has won 22 PGA Tour events. "The key is to really not worry about what other guys are doing. Granted, I'll look at the leader board, but I can't really dwell on whether guys are taking it low or not."

Often playing the role of the gracious loser - whether it was at Pinehurst No. 2 in the 1999 U.S. Open, when he lost by one stroke to the late Payne Stewart, or in the 2001 PGA Championship, when he lost by one to David Toms outside Atlanta - Mickelson seems a different player this time.

Trying to become the second straight left-hander to win the Masters, - Mike Weir won last year - Mickelson is as much in control of his game as he is of his emotions. The biggest change is off the tee, where Mickelson has sacrificed distance for accuracy by cutting the ball rather than trying to crush it.

"I think the decision-making has improved for the simple reason I've been driving the ball in play," Mickelson said. "I don't have the decisions I had when I was off in the trees as much."

Though not always on target yesterday, Mickelson made a bunch of par-saving putts early as well as on the par-4 18th hole to close out a round of 3-under 69. After driving into the right rough on the 465-yard closing hole, Mickelson's second shot went over the green. He putted from about 30 feet, downhill, and then needed a 10-footer coming back to stay tied with DiMarco, who shot a 68 yesterday.

"On 18, I spent countless hours with Dave [Pelz] on certain areas around the green putting because I'm not able to chip there," Mickelson said of the game's pre-eminent short-game guru. `That's where I'm picking up that half a shot, to maybe make par but at worst make bogey."

Mickelson, often one of the streakiest players in the game, has not made a bogey in 32 holes.

"I think that a par putt can give you much more momentum many times than a birdie putt, especially around here, where you just try to make par so many times," said Mickelson. "I think that the par putt on No. 6 [from 15 feet] was a big one because it gave me momentum and it was going Mach 2. It would have been off the green."

What will help Mickelson today is what helped David Duval win his first major at the 2001 British Open and what also enabled Els to win his first major in five years, at the 2002 British Open. It's the fact that three-time Masters champion Tiger Woods is, realistically, out of contention.

"It won't suck," said Mickelson.

Asked to expound on that, Mickelson smiled.

"Not really," he said.

Woods, who shot 75 yesterday to fall nine strokes behind, isn't giving up, perhaps because he knows who's leading.

"Even when I've been out front and leading, anything can happen," said Woods. "You think that because there's so much danger out there on the back nine. So I've just got to be patient and see if I can get myself in there."

DiMarco, who was in contention here two years ago when he led after each of the first two rounds before finishing tied for 10th, hopes to learn from his past Masters mistakes. The biggest might have come last year, when DiMarco withdrew during the rain-delayed second round.

A three-time winner in nine years on the PGA Tour, DiMarco goes back with Mickelson to their years playing against each other in college and, more recently, as teammates on last year's Presidents Cup team where Mickelson actually changed golf balls to accommodate DiMarco's game.

Asked if he feels as if he has anything to prove, DiMarco said, "No, to tell you the truth. I obviously want to win majors, certainly. I want to win more tournaments. But if it all ended tomorrow, I'd be happy with my career, the way I've played and what I've done and the success I've had."

Mickelson would probably say the same thing.

Let's see if a night on a lumpy mattress sharing the lead changes that.

Leader board

Third-round leaders ...

Chris DiMarco 69-73-68-210

Phil Mickelson 72-69-69-210

... and selected followers

Paul Casey 75-69-68-212

Bernhard Langer 71-73-69-213

Ernie Els 70-72-71-213

K.J. Choi 71-70-72-213

Kirk Triplett 71-74-69-214

Davis Love III 75-67-74-216

Vijay Singh 75-73-69-217

Justin Rose 67-71-81-219

Tiger Woods 75-69-75-219

Complete scores, 13E

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