Mickelson wins Masters tuneup, vaults past Tiger

Posted: 04/04/2011 in PGA

Mickelson cruises at Houston Open title

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Phil Mickelson poured in five straight birdies Sunday en route to a seven-under 65 and a three-stroke win at the Houston Open.

Mickelson, who will defend his title at the Masters next week, pulled away from Scott Verplank on the back nine on the Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club. Mickelson finished at 20-under-par 268.

The 40-year-old Mickelson is the last player to win the week before the Masters, then pick up the green jacket at Augusta the following week. He won those back-to-back titles in 2006, when he earned his second Masters title.

“I’m just trying to get my game ready, and it’s not just the ball-striking and short game and putting and so forth,” Mickelson said in a television interview. “I’ve got to maintain my focus throughout the round.

“There were two points out there today on eight and 15, where I just lost focus. I’ve got to keep that for every shot because next week at Augusta, that golf course can be very penalizing.”

With the victory, Mickelson will move to No. 3 in the world, which bumps Tiger Woods out of the top five for the first time 1997, when he was ranked 13th the week before winning his first Masters title.

PGA Tour rookie Chris Kirk closed with a five-under 67 to share second place with Verplank, who shot 68 on Sunday, at minus-17.

Mickelson chipped in for birdie on the first, but stumbled to bogeys on the second and third. He came right back with a five-foot birdie putt on the fourth, but was one behind Verplank, who had three pars and a 13-foot birdie putt on the second.

Verplank extended his lead to two shots with a nine-foot birdie effort on the sixth. Mickelson answered with a six-footer for birdie at No. 7.

The 46-year-old Verplank, who needed to win this week to get into the Masters, responded with an up-and-down birdie on the par-five eighth.

Mickelson caught fire at No. 9. He poured in a 27-footer for birdie there, then tapped in a three-foot birdie try at 10 after Verplank made birdie from nine feet out.

After a seven-footer for birdie on 11, Mickelson was tied for the lead at 17- under. Mickelson drove the green on the par-four 12th and two-putted for birdie, but he remained tied with Verplank, who pitched his second to three feet and knocked that in for birdie on No. 12.

At the par-five 13th, Mickelson chipped his third just inside eight feet and converted that for birdie. Verplank kicked in a three-footer to remain tied for the lead with Mickelson.

Mickelson’s run of five straight birdies ended with a par on the 14th, but he was now alone in the lead as Verplank faltered to a three-putt bogey. Mickelson could have extended his lead to three on the par-five 15th, but three-putted for par from 24 feet.

The par-three 16th proved to be the turning point.

Mickelson drained a five-footer for birdie, while Verplank struggled to a bogey. That gave Mickelson a three-stroke margin with two holes to play.

He parred in to seal his 39th PGA Tour title, which tied him for ninth place with Cary Middlecoff and Tom Watson on the PGA Tour all time wins list.

Winning in Houston was especially emotional for Mickelson, as this is the city where his wife, Amy, and his mother have both been undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

“This has been a special place because we have spent a lot of time here in Houston,” Mickelson admitted in a television interview. “I’m very pleased to play well and be able to spend so much time with all the people that have helped us the last couple of years.”

Verplank was denied his first PGA Tour title since he won the 2007 Byron Nelson Championship and a trip to the Masters, which he could have gotten only with a victory.

Steve Stricker (69) and Aaron Baddeley (71) shared fourth place at 13-under- par 275. Robert Allenby (69) and David Hearn (71) were one stroke further back at minus-12.

– Steve

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