Past Champs Cant Keep Up with Mickelson


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There were so many green jackets chasing Phil Mickelson for a time on the back nine at the Masters that the leaderboard looked more like the champions locker room.
Tiger Woods. Jose Maria Olazabal. Vijay Singh. Fred Couples. Eight titles at Augusta National among them. And not one of them could make a putt when he needed it most Sunday afternoon.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods missed too many putts to repeat as champion.
'As good as I hit it, that's as bad as I putted,' Woods said. 'If I had putted halfway decently, I'd be giving Phil a battle.'
By the end of the day, the parade of former champions couldn't even hold onto second place. That belonged to unheralded Tim Clark, known best as the South African who isn't Ernie Els or Retief Goosen.
Clark finished two strokes behind Mickelson at 5-under 283, while Couples, Olazabal, Woods, Goosen and Chad Campbell were another stroke back at 4 under. Singh tied for eighth at 3 under.
With Mickelson and Couples paired together, and Woods, Singh and Olazabal giving chase, the final round at Augusta National had all the makings of an epic finish.
Woods was seeking his fifth green jacket, with his father battling cancer back in California. Couples was hoping to become the oldest Masters champion ever six months shy of his 47th birthday -- and on the anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' last title, no less.
'I felt this great feeling of accomplishment to be able to beat guys like Tiger and Retief and Ernie and Vijay and Fred,' Mickelson said. 'To come out on top, it's a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.'
For the others, it was an epic bust.
'It's a humbling experience out there, because you're trying so hard,' Couples said. 'I just left too many out there.'
Olazabal, the winner at Augusta National in 1994 and 1999, at least made things interesting. Beginning the final round at 2 over, he had birdies on three of his first four holes to post a 32 on the front side.
'When I looked at the leaderboard and saw how the guys were not making a charge, I thought, `Well, let's see how well I can play the back nine,'' said Olazabal, who played 10 groups ahead of Mickelson.
He shook off a bogey at No. 11 and closed within a shot of the lead with an eagle at the 15th. But he cooled off with a three-putt on the par-3 16th, then had to work to save par on his final two holes.
Woods was dismal on the greens, but at least he was consistent. He flubbed short putts on the front nine and the back nine. He pushed them and pulled them. He never could get his speed right.
He three-putted from 15 feet for bogey on No. 11, and missed a 12-footer for birdie on No. 12. He missed eagle putts inside 15 feet on both Nos. 13 and 15, and couldn't make a 10-footer for birdie on No. 14.
He had three three-putts in all, equaling the first three rounds combined and the most Woods could remember in a single round at Augusta.
'I absolutely lost it out there on the greens,' Woods said. 'I'll probably go snap this putter in about eight pieces.'
Singh played well, but was never spectacular. He was at 4 under by the turn, but couldn't pick up any more ground.
The most disheartening of the collapses was by Couples.
One of golf's most popular players, fans were rooting for him to show a bit of immortality. He has one victory in the last eight years, at the 2003 Shell Open, and he threw away the Nissan Open earlier this year when he had an 8-footer for the lead at No. 13 and left it short, then bogeyed three of the last four holes.
But this was the 20th anniversary of Nicklaus' victory for the aged, his sixth -- and final -- Masters title at age 46. What better way to celebrate it than to have Couples win it, replacing Nicklaus as oldest champion by about three months?
If the ages weren't omen enough, Couples' Masters badge this week -- assigned in order of player registration -- was No. 86, same as the year of Nicklaus' famous charge.
'When I teed off,' Couples said, 'I was, in my mind, one of the four, five, six guys that had a chance to win.'
For a while, it looked as if he just might. A birdie on the first hole pulled him even with Mickelson, and they went birdie-for-birdie on the seventh. He fell a stroke behind on the next hole, then three-putted for a bogey on 11.
He looked as if he might sink even further when his tee shot landed about a foot from the creek on the par-5 13th. But he recovered beautifully, dropping a 4-footer for a birdie for his best putt of the day.
'The back nine, we were telling each other, `Let's make some birdies,'' Couples said.
His hopes died on the next hole. Needing only to make a 4-footer for a birdie, he pushed it about 5 feet past the hole. His par putt rolled right on by, too, and it looked as if he had lost all touch on the greens.
'I'm 46. I don't really feel 46. I didn't hit the ball like I was 46,' Couples said. 'I putted like I was 66. I'm beating myself up, but it just really came down to one minor, minor casualty and that was on 14.
'I mean, I can live and die with three-putting and some of the other stuff,' he added. 'But that really is a putt where it would have been a heck of a lot more fun to make and see what would have happened.'
Instead, the green jacket in his size was put back in the closet. Along with those of the other champions.
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