Rapid reaction: Mickelson's unlikely win

Phil Mickelson tees off the third hole during the final round of the Houston Open golf tournament, Sunday, April 3, 2011, in Humble, Texas.

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HUMBLE, Texas – Houston, we have a Masters favorite. This year’s Masters was being billed as the most wide-open in recent history because of the concurrent struggles of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and the crop of young up-and-comers nipping at their heels.

Then Phil Mickelson went out and won the Houston Open by three strokes on Sunday to emphatically declare himself as the man to beat at next week’s invitational at Augusta National.

1. Repeat the feat: Only four players have won the week prior to a Masters victory. Mickelson is a member of that foursome. He won the 2006 BellSouth Classic by 13 shots, then earned his second Masters title.

“It feels a lot like 2006, in that I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been saying all year I’m playing well but I’m not getting the scores out if it.”

Mickelson couldn’t have gone much lower over the weekend, shooting 16-under 128. His third-round 63 matched the course record. This was Mickelson’s first victory since last year’s Masters, and his first since turning 40 in June.

2. Not all it’s cracked up to be: Mickelson played the Houston Open’s first round with a cracked driver. Rules officials inspected the club, but said the damage was not significant enough to allow him to replace the club.

Callaway’s head of research and development flew to Houston to bring Mickelson a replacement club. He ranked sixth in driving distance (314.6 yards) this week, but 67th in accuracy. That lack of accuracy isn’t cause for concern at Augusta National, and should be overlooked in favor of this stat: he was third in putts per green in regulation (1.64).

3. Injured reserve: Scott Verplank almost collected his sixth career victory in spite of an injured left wrist that has limited him to four starts this season. He’s played reasonably well in spite of the injury, making three consecutive cuts.

“If you’re hurt, you don’t have a whole ton of confidence in your body,” Verplank said. “It’s hard to have confidence in anything.”

Verplank started the final round tied for the lead with Mickelson. They were still tied through 13 holes, but Verplank made bogey on two of the next three holes. His 68 left him three behind Mickelson.

“It wasn’t holding steady like I needed it to do,” Verplank said of his wrist. “When you can feel the club wiggling a little bit, that’s not a great feeling.”

4. It was only about 18 months ago that Chris Kirk was battling to maintain Nationwide Tour status. Now the PGA Tour rookie has virtually locked up his card just 10 events into his rookie season. Kirk's runner-up at the Houston Open was worth $519,200, bringing his season earnings to $779,079, about $8,000 less than Troy Merritt earned to finish No. 125 on last year's money list.

Kirk has worked in recent years with Davis Love III's brother, Mark. Their partnership has turned Kirk's career around. He was 178th on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2009.

Kirk was four shots outside the cut line entering the final round of Q-School's second stage in 2009. His final-round 64 helped him advance easily to finals, where he regained his Nationwide status. He finished second on the money list last year to earn his first PGA Tour card.

"I was way more nervous (at Q-School) than I was today," Kirk said. "My career, and paying my mortgage, wasn't on the line today. It was that day."

5. Odds and ends: As you begin to ponder your picks for your Masters pool, here’s a quick glance at how some predicted Masters contenders performed this week.

• Matt Kuchar is still known for his play as an amateur at the 1998 Masters. Maybe this is the year he contends as a pro. Kuchar was 2 over par through the Houston Open’s first 22 holes, but played the next 50 in 11 under par, including just two bogeys. The Houston Open was his sixth top-10 in eight starts this year.

• Hunter Mahan may have bogeyed three of his last five holes at the Houston Open, but he still tied for eighth. He’s finished in the top 10 in his past two Masters, and in five of nine starts this year.

• Lee Westwood, last year’s Masters runner-up, may have tied for 30th in Houston, but he ended on a high note, with a final-round 68.

• Ernie Els, a two-time Masters runner-up, isn’t exactly peaking in advance of the season’s first major. He finished 54th at Houston, one week after a 70th-place showing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Els finished 18th at last year’s Masters after three consecutive missed cuts.

• Charl Schwartzel, a popular sleeper pick, tied for 30th at Houston after closing with three consecutive sub-par rounds. Schwartzel finished 30th last year in his Masters debut.

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