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Phil Mickelson getting all he deserves at Masters

Phil Mickelson celebrates the first of his back-to-back eagles on Nos. 13 and 14.

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Phil Mickelson celebrates the first of his back-to-back eagles on Nos. 13 and 14.

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The Man Who Is Not Tiger Woods stood in the fairway, a football field and a half from the hole, and his arms were raised over his head. Around him, the approval seemed to come from everywhere, loud and long and loving, and Phil Mickelson smiled widely, and it seemed as if the moment would last forever.

They love him now, these golf fans, without pause and without condition. They have seen his passion, and they have shared his pain, and these days Mickelson has become one of their own. He has been hurt, and he has been humanized.

Most of all, he has not been Tiger.

These days, that may be the best thing you can say about Mickelson.

And so Mickelson stood in the 14th fairway, and the joy he felt for holing an improbable shot spread through the gallery. He had just knocked in an eagle on the par 4 from 141 yards, which had come after an 8-foot putt for eagle on the previous hole.

Just like that, Mickelson had gone from four strokes back to seize control of the Masters. For a moment, no one else seemed to matter except Mickelson and his newfound connection with those on the other side of the ropes.

Back-to-back eagles? How crazy is that? It's like watching back-to-back halfcourt shots fall in a basketball game. Or back-to-back Hail Mary passes for touchdowns. Most of us have a better chance at back-to-back winning lottery tickets.

The amazing thing? Mickelson darned near did it again on the par-5 15th. His wedge shot from 87 yards out snuck just past the hole, or they would have talked about Mickelson's run for a hundred years.

Amen Corner? How about Phil's Cul-de-sac?

"It was pretty cool, that walkup," Mickelson, 39, said. "I can't believe that ball disappeared and went in. It was sure fun, especially after eagling 13.

"The one on 15? It went across the hole, from my viewpoint, but was about 8 inches behind it. But as it was crossing the hole, I was expecting it to disappear."

At that point, who wasn't? For that wonderful run, Mickelson was playing as if he might never see the wrong side of par again. And in the gallery, faces were smiling so hard you wondered if jaws might break.

Fred Couples, one of Mickel­son's buddies, yelled at him across the course.

"I wanted that golf ball he holed at 14," Couples said. "He couldn't hear me, but I wanted that eagle ball. He played an extremely great round of golf."

If you remember, it wasn't so long ago that critics looked at Mickelson and saw everything that Tiger was not. Mickelson wasn't ruthless like Tiger. He didn't finish like Tiger. He didn't manage his game like Tiger. Most important, he didn't win major championships like Tiger.

These days, time and circumstance have turned Mickelson into the ultimate good-guy golfer. After all, at a time when Tiger was stepping out on his wife, Mickelson was stepping aside to comfort his.

It was 11 months ago when Mickelson left the tour to take care of his wife, Amy, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer (shortly afterward, Mickelson's mother was diagnosed as well). He returned to the U.S. Open, at Amy's insistence, and came within two shots of winning it. Then he disappeared for another five weeks.

In other words, some things are more important than golf. Good for Mickelson that he realized it.

This week is the first time in 11 months that Amy and the rest of the Mickelsons have traveled to watch Phil. Maybe that explains why he has been so sharp. For a man who had not been playing well, Mickelson seems to have found some answers at Augusta National.

"It's really fun having them here, and it takes a lot of the heartache away," Mickelson said.

For the most part, Mickelson describes the cancer only in general terms. The long-term prognoses for his wife and mother are good, he said. Short-term, however, he said there are hard days.

Golf helps him. Mickelson has always loved the game, and most of the fans have loved the bold, aggressive way he has played it. Still, there have always been detractors ready to talk about the tournaments he has not won. Funny, but you don't hear about those anymore.

Can Mickelson win this thing? He trails Lee Westwood by a shot, and Westwood is playing well. And three strokes behind him, despite a wobbly, scrambling round that made you remember what George Michael said (that guilty feet have got no rhythm), Woods is well within striking distance. In other words, it isn't hard to imagine another Woods-Mickelson showdown at Augusta in today's final round.

This time?

This time Mickelson is the golfer who deserves the cheers.

Phil Mickelson getting all he deserves at Masters 04/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 11, 2010 2:00am]

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