Mickelson resumes his quest

2006-04-09 21:53
Augusta - Phil Mickelson resumed his quest for back-to-back major titles while Tiger Woods and Fred Couples chased golf history as leaders began their final rounds here on Sunday at the 70th Masters.

Mickelson and Couples teed off while defending champion Woods was already on the prowl, trying to hunt them both down to collect his 11th major title and fifth green jacket triumph at Augusta National Golf Club.

Mickelson completed the storm-interrupted third round of the year's first major championship Sunday morning with a 70 to stand on four-under 212, one stroke ahead of fellow Americans Couples and Chad Campbell with Woods on 214.

Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez went birdie-birdie and Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke opened with a birdie to both reach three-under, a stroke off the lead, while Woods opened with a par to stay two back when Mickelson began.

Left-hander Mickelson, who never led a major after 54 holes until his first major triumph at the 2004 Masters, also shared the three-round lead entering the final round of his PGA Championship victory last August.

"To be in the final group and have a chance, sure there's pressure, but it's what I'm working for," Mickelson said.

A third title in the past nine majors would make Mickelson, once tagged as the best player to have never won a major, the first man to win two majors in a row since Woods took the 2002 Masters and US Open.

Claim a green jacket

Mickelson, who won the US PGA BellSouth Classic last week by 13 strokes, could become only the fifth man to win the week before the Masters and then claim a green jacket, the most recent being Scotsman Sandy Lyle in 1988.

Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, going 0-for-33, but is 10-for-10 when leading after three rounds. Adsding inspiration is the absence of his father Earl, 74, who is fighting cancer and cannot travel.

A victory would move Woods alongside Walter Hagen for the second-most major titles in history, seven shy of boyhood idol Jack Nicklaus' all-time record.

Couples, 46, would replace Jack Nicklaus by about three months as the oldest winner in Masters history. The only older major champion was Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.

The longest gap between Masters triumphs would also belong to Couples, the 1992 champion. The 14-year gap would be one year longer than South African Gary Player's wait between his first title in 1961 and second of three in 1974.

Couples fired a 72 to join Mickelson in the final pairing. The past 15 Masters champions have come from the last pairing.

"When I was trailing, I didn't put much credence in that. Now that I'm leading I like that stat," Mickelson said.

Swirling back-nine

Woods averted disaster with clutch putts at 17 and 18 after an unprecedented three bogeys in a row as a pro at the Masters for a third-round 71 to stand on 214 while swirling back-nine winds sent rivals stumbling back.

"I'm still there. I'm only three back and with the wind picking up, it's going to be an interesting afternoon," Woods said. "The back nine is playing really tricky. We're going to have our hands full."

Campbell led after 36 holes but soared to a third-round 75 to fall back while Mediate struggled to a second 73 in a row. In all, eight players were within two of Mickelson, the most so close after 54 holes in 11 years.

Fiji's Vijay Singh, Canada's Stephen Ames, American Rocco Mediate, South African Tim Clark and Clarke all joined Woods two strokes off the lead as the round began.

Clarke, whose wife Heather is battling cancer, led European hopes. No European has taken a major since 1999 when Scotsman Paul Lawrie won the British Open and Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters.

Ames, who won the Players Championship two weeks ago, played the back-nine at par Sunday to complete a third-round 70.

Singh, 43, seeks a second Masters title to go with two PGA crowns. Only Woods, Nicklaus, Hagen, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan have won both events multiple times.

Clark, third at the 2005 US Open and 2003 PGA Championship, had a two-stroke lead after 13 holes but was four-over par on the final six holes to fall back.

South African Retief Goosen, a two-time US Open champion, shared 10th on 215 with Jimenez after 54 holes.

Neither Jimenez nor Clark have ever won a US PGA event. Only two players made the Masters their first such triumph, Germany's Bernhard Langer in 1985 and Claude Harmon in 1948.

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