2005: PGA - Monster bash

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Miami

The battle at the Blue Monster. Duel at Doral. Showdown in South Florida.

The hyperbole and birdies flowed with equal license at the Ford Championship. In a rare twist of marketing magic, however, the conclusion lived up to all the hype.

It’s difficult to overestimate the significance of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson’s final-round shootout March 6 at the Ford Championship was. The too-perfect-for-primetime pairing featured a mano-a-mano edge tournament directors dream about – but reality rarely delivers – and Woods’ Ruthian promise to his father on Saturday to “shoot a low one” gave the entire affair a human element that golf, at least at its highest level, often lacks.

“It’s Jack and Arnie, Watson and Nicklaus . . . it was unbelievable stuff,” was how swing coach Rick Smith summed up Woods’ one-stroke victory. “What you saw today was a major.”

Equally unbelievable was Smith gushing about a finish that included his prize student, Mickelson, one shot behind Woods on the leaderboard.

But history has a way of skewing sentimentality, and Woods vs. Mickelson had all the markings of a classic thanks to Woods’ third-round 63 that cut Lefty’s lead to two and set up the first head-to-head, final-round bout between the two since the 2003 Buick Invitational.

As Mickelson and Woods ventured out Sunday, there were 79 other players on the course.

There may as well have been none for all

Greater Miami cared.

Sunday’s final round was Ali vs. Frazier. Godzilla vs. Rodan with a Beatles concert buzz. Fans lined every fairway three and four rows deep, and the marquee pairing didn’t disappoint.

“My only hope is that we play well enough to make it a two-man race. We don’t want to let anyone back into the tournament,” said Mickelson on the eve of the final round. “If we play anything like we did at the Ryder Cup together, it’s a real possibility (of letting the field back in).”

Had Hal Sutton’s high-stakes pairing played anywhere close to the caliber of golf they displayed at Doral, the Ryder Cup likely would be back on American soil.

The dynamic duo combined for five birdies through nine holes, with Mickelson clinging to a one-shot lead. Woods swung the tournament in his favor at No. 12 with a bold 3-wood from 277 yards that set up a 27-foot eagle putt while Mickelson was making par.

Those types of theatrics from Woods normally closed out opponents in the past, but Mickelson – who began Sunday with at least a share of the lead for the 10th consecutive round – responded.

“When he made eagle on 12, I loved it because I want a chance to compete against him at his best,” said Mickelson, who promptly birdied Nos. 13 and 14 to regain a tie with Woods.

Woods birdied No. 17, however, and made a routine par at the demanding 18th for a final-round 66 and a tournament-record 24-under 264. Far from routine was Mickelson’s 30-foot chip for birdie on No. 18, which grazed the right edge and gave Woods the chance for the clinching putt.

“From where I was looking, that thing was just center cut,” Woods said of Mickelson’s chip.

The victory is Woods’ second of 2005 and the best indication to date his ongoing swing changes are now beyond the transitional phase.

In many ways the duel at Doral was a reversal of fortune for two long-time opponents with a relationship that’s at best described as cordial.

Woods spent most of the week in Mickelson’s shadow thanks to Lefty’s opening 64-66 that gave him a two-stroke lead over Billy Andrade after two rounds. Even as the two headed toward their Sunday clash, most of Miami was fixated on Phil.

“He’s on a rampage,” said Zach Johnson, who finished tied for third with Vijay Singh after shooting a career-best 64 in Round 3. “It’s fun to watch if you’re a spectator of the game, I guess. Kind of stinks to be part of it.”

But while the field and anyone east of the Everglades watched Mickelson, the left-hander had his eyes on Woods.

“My record against him head-to-head has been nothing near stellar . . . something I’m going to have to work on,” he said.

Sunday was the dream pairing Mickelson had been craving – a rare opportunity to test his game and confidence against Woods. A closing 69 left him a shot behind, but even in defeat he drew inspiration.

“This was probably the best thing that could have happened,” Mickelson said. “I’m going to go work my tail off to salvage a couple more shots because when I come back to The Players Championship and the Masters, I’m going to be ready.”

There’s little doubt Woods is ready for the Masters and beyond.

The once-perennial front-runner has won his past two stroke-play events in come-from-behind fashion, and, after a 26-week absence, regained the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking from Singh on the year’s most dramatic stage to date.

“It was electric,” Woods said. “I can’t speak for Phil but I certainly was nervous out there. If you’re not nervous on a day like this, you’re not alive.”

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