2006: Mickelson gains major momentum heading to Augusta

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Duluth, Ga.

Lots of players are going to miss the Tour’s annual little Masters tuneup in Atlanta as the BellSouth Classic shifts to a later date in the PGA Tour schedule next spring.

Nobody is going to miss it more than Phil Mickelson.

Having not won yet in 2006 as he arrived to defend at the BellSouth, Mickelson had hoped to create a little momentum before making the two-hour-plus trek up I-20 east to Augusta.

How’s this for momentum: He’ll roll down Magnolia Lane like a Sherman tank. Mickelson lapped the field in winning his third BellSouth title, finishing 13 shots – that’s right, a full baker’s dozen – clear of his nearest challengers.

In the past half-century, only Tiger Woods (2000 U.S. Open, 15-shot victory) and Johnny Miller (1975 Phoenix Open, 14 shots) have won by larger margins. Jose Maria Olazabal, a playoff runner-up to Mickelson in 2005, joined Zach Johnson in second place, 13 shots behind Mickelson’s incredible winning pace of 28-under 260.

How good was Mickelson? He made two eagles and 31 birdies in leading wire to wire, and his rounds of 63-65-67-65 established a new tournament mark at TPC Sugarloaf – by 10 shots. Though he’ll be back to try to three-peat at the BellSouth in May 2007, it just won’t be quite the same – though he’d love to see his game the same.

“He is doing absolutely everything right,” said Johnson, the 2004 BellSouth winner. “I can’t think of a missed shot he hit, really. . . . It was a display of perfect golf.”

Mickelson, 35, led by six at the tournament’s midway point and eight after 54 holes – that after finding the water not once, but twice in making a double bogey at the par-5 18th hole to close the third round. On Sunday, he made it clear early on he wasn’t content just to sit on his lead and play passively. His final-round 65 was the low round of the day.

Mickelson hit driver onto the green to set up a 4-foot eagle putt at the 325-yard 13th hole, and closed his victory in style, pounding his second shot onto the right side of the green with a fairway metal at the par-5 18th, then canning a 25-footer for his second eagle of the day.

As part of his preparation for Augusta National, Mickelson packed two drivers in his bag at the BellSouth – his usual Callaway Big Bertha Fusion FT-3 gamer, with which he can fade the ball with ease, and a second Fusion that is an inch longer and weighted specifically to allow him to turn the ball from left to right. To make room for the extra driver, he removed a wedge from his bag.

The way he performed at the BellSouth, he could have won with half a set of clubs.

Mickelson’s two-driver strategy was a trial balloon for a scheme he planned to bring to Augusta National. He wanted to see if it worked, and it did. Wonderfully.

“I decided there were too many shots off the tee (at Augusta) where I needed different distances, and

these drivers are (traveling) different distances,” he said. “All of the right-to-left holes, I didn’t have to hit it very hard, and all of the left-to-right holes, I had to hit it pretty far. I have a driver I hit a long ways that draws, and I have a driver that fades and stays in play. . . . It’s great because I only have to play with half the trouble.”

Mickelson’s 28th Tour victory was perhaps his most complete. He finished no worse than eighth in any of the tournament’s key statistics, leading the field in greens in regulation (89 percent), tying for sixth in putts per round (28.0) and driving it both long (309.1 yards) and straight (hitting 80.4 percent

of his fairways).

His lead was so large on Sunday that he even allowed his mind to drift ahead to Augusta National.

The driver he hit Sunday at TPC Sugarloaf’s 12th, for instance, was the same hard cut he’ll use to bend his tee shot around the corner at Augusta National’s 13th hole.

Asked about finishing a truly memorable week in truly memorable fashion – burying the putt for eagle at his 72nd hole – Mickelson shrugged his shoulders, as if it were no big deal.

“I think I had a little room to spare,” he said.

He had plenty.

It was that kind of week.

– Staff and wire report

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