Mickelson poised to win first major

By Charles Robinson
STAR Staff
crobinson@starhq.com

   AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Perhaps the law of averages is about to catch up with Phil Mickelson. That would be a good thing for the veteran PGA player.
   Regarded by many as the best player to never win a major, Mickelson has a good chance to leave that distinction to another player as the final round of the Masters carefully unfolds today at Augusta National Golf Course.
   He finds himself tied with Chris DiMarco for the lead after firing a bogey-free 69 during Saturday's third round.
   Being in the lead could be a very good omen for the smooth-swinging lefty, as the Masters' last 13 champions have come from the final group.
   "I did want to be in the final group," said Mickelson, who is 0-for-42 in major events. "I did want to be in a position where I didn't have to change my game plan to try to catch anyone. That's the nice thing about being in the lead right now."
   DiMarco, though, still poses a very large threat. Also looking for his first major, he fired a 4-under-68 to join Mickelson at 6-under 210.
   "He's going to have a lot of pressure on him, too, because he's going to try to get that monkey off there," said DiMarco, referring to Mickelson. "It's going to be fun."
   Showing the way at the end of the first and second rounds, young Englishman Justin Rose came unglued on Saturday, losing his two-stroke lead and falling a whopping nine shots off the pace.
   Greatly thanks to six bogeys on the front nine, his third-round 81 was the worst score by a 36-hole Masters leader since Lee Trevino posted the same score back in 1989.
   While Rose lost his thorns on the tough Augusta course, fellow Englishman Paul Casey stepped close to the fore. His 68 left his just two shots off the lead.
   Lurking closely is Ernie Els (71), two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer (69) and K.J. Choi (72) at 213.
   One player who barely on the radar screen is former Masters winner Tiger Woods, who has struggled the majority of the tournament.
   A double-bogey on the par-5 No. 13 was packaged in a third-round 75 for Woods, who stands nine shots behind Mickelson and DiMarco.
   "I put myself pretty far back going into tomorrow," Woods said, although he refused to count himself out. "If I can get it to even par or under par going into the back nine, I'm right in the ball game. Because as we know, anything can happen on the back nine here."
   Although Woods is usually the big attention-grabber, much of today's spotlight is likely be centered on Mickelson, a 22-time winner in PGA events.
   Golf enthusiasts are waiting to see if Mickelson can deliver a breakthrough effort in a major. Having lost the 1999 U.S Open and 2001 PGA Championship on the final hole of both tournaments, he may not fall short again -- not if he continues to stay out of trouble the way he has the last two days.
   "It's a much easier game when you keep it in play," said Mickelson, who has shot no worse than par the last 32 holes. "I wish someone had told me this earlier."
   DiMarco had the lead at this point in 2001. He ended up with a 10th-place showing.
   "That springboarded me to know I can do bigger and better things," he said.
   Mickelson was three shots back and DiMarco four when play began on Saturday. Alex Cejka and Jose Maria Olazabal were tied for second at the beginning of the third round, but now trail by eight and nine strokes, respectively.
   FRIDAY
   While the upstart Rose stayed in front, Arnold Palmer, the grand old man of golf, took his final bows at Augusta National.
   The 74-year-old player, competing in his 50th and final Masters event, missed the cut after shooting a second-round 84. He could have shot a 113 and no one would have cared. Just seeing him play was good enough.
   Fans turned out in droves to see Palmer, and the overcrowded scene at No. 18 when Palmer play the final hole of a tournament he won four times, was one worth remembering.
   "Thanks for the years, Arnie!" a fan shouted on the 18th fairway as Palmer waited for the green to clear.
   The support overwhelmed the legendary golfer.
   "When I look out into the galleries and I see them wishing me good luck, and I think how much I owe them ..." Palmer said, his voice cracking.
   Unable to go on, Palmer bowed and wiped the tears from his eyes.
   "I guess it's more difficult for me because I'm sort of a sentimental slob," he said. "I don't think I could ever separate myself from this club and this golf tournament. I may not be here, but I'll still be a part of what happens here."