Feelin' it

BY DOUG FERGUSON

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The guy with no majors suddenly has no worries.

Phil Mickelson no longer wonders where his tee shots are going. He no longer feels as though he has to fire at every flag in a reckless pursuit of greatness. And he doesn't have to chase Tiger Woods, or anyone else, for that elusive major.

Lefty is in control of his game and, finally, in control of his own destiny.

“I'm much more at ease than I have been in the past,” Mickelson said. “I don't have that anxiety. I haven't felt it all year.”

Mickelson polished off a bogey-free round Saturday at the Masters with a 10-foot par save on the final hole, giving him a 3-under 69, a share of the lead with Chris DiMarco and his best chance yet to shed the label as the best player never to have won a major.

Despite a half-dozen close calls in the majors, he has never gone into the final round with no one ahead of him.

Better yet, the last 13 winners at Augusta National have come out of the final group.

Someone was quick to point out that Mickelson doesn't have to worry about Woods, who stumbled to a 75 and was nine shots behind. How does that feel?

“Well, it doesn't suck, I'll say that,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson and DiMarco, who was equally flawless in a bogey-free round of 68, were at 6-under 210 heading to a Sunday that should be filled with thrills.

“He's going to have a lot of pressure on him, too, because he's going to try to get that monkey off there,” DiMarco said. “It's going to be fun.”

Paul Casey of England shot a 68 and was at 4-under 212, swapping roles with countryman Justin Rose who matched the worst third round at the Masters by a 36-hole leader. Rose bogeyed five of his first seven holes and crashed to an 81, the same score Lee Trevino shot in 1989.

Three-time major winner Ernie Els (71) and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer (69) were another stroke back, along with K.J. Choi (72).

“I just want a chance tomorrow,” Els said. “That's all I'm asking.”

Els was lucky to salvage a bogey after driving into the trees on No. 11 and turning a birdie opportunity into a bogey on the par-5 13th. He desperately wants a green jacket, having finished no worse than sixth the last four years.

“I've been in this position quite a few times, but I've been chasing Tiger,” Els said.

That won't be the case Sunday. Woods fell behind from the start, then tumbled out of contention with a double bogey on the par-5 13th. Two birdies on his final four holes spared him his worst score at the Masters.

“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.”

The attention will be on Mickelson, a supremely talented player with 22 victories on the PGA Tour. Only two other players Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper and MacDonald Smith have won more often without capturing the four tournaments that matter the most.

Mickelson was close at Pinehurst five years ago in the U.S. Open until Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to beat him by one. He was close in Atlanta at the 2001 PGA Championship until David Toms beat him with a par on the final hole.

This will be the seventh time he goes into the final round at a major within two shots of the lead.

“For whatever reason, it's been much more difficult for me to win major championships than regular tour events,” said Mickelson, whose 0-for-42 record in the majors has defined his career. “That's starting to change a bit.”

Known for his gambling style on the course, Mickelson has toned down his swing, given up his lust for length and has learned how much easier it is to score from the fairways. He hasn't made a bogey in his last 32 holes, an amazing feat considering the firm, fast, tough conditions at Augusta National.

Mickelson five times saved par with putts that ranged from 6 to 25 feet, but he was never in serious danger of bogey on the back nine until the final hole.

“It's a much easier game when you keep it in play,” Mickelson said. “I wish someone had told me this earlier.”

DiMarco might not be the underdog, but he expects it will sound that way. Mickelson is among the most popular players in golf, at times a sympathetic figure during his pursuit of a major.

The 35-year-old DiMarco has his own Masters experience. He was the 36-hole leader three years ago, and kept his composure playing in the final pairing with Woods, shooting 72. DiMarco wound up 10th that year, but learned from it.

“That springboarded me to know I can do bigger and better things,” he said.

Even though Rose had a two-shot lead and had played with great confidence over two days, bright sunshine and a crisp breeze made this a day ripe with possibilities.

It didn't take long for it to unfold.

Rose hit his opening tee shot into the bunker, the start of a nightmarish nine holes. He flew over the green and made bogey, and his lead was gone one hole later when his wedge again was too strong and landed in the front row of the gallery for another bogey.

The scorecard for the front nine six bogeys, three pars, one stunning collapse.

“Every minor mistake got punished,” Rose said.

Mickelson and DiMarco wasted no time taking advantage.

DiMarco made the only birdie of the round on the par-3 fourth and also picked up birdies on the par 5s for a share of the lead. His best shot of the day was an 8-iron from 156 yards that climbed the scary slope on the 14th green and stopped about 4 feet behind the hole.

Mickelson electrified the gallery with a collection of smart shots and key putts. Cheers burst from the third green when Lefty drained a 20-foot birdie, and they were even louder when his 25-footer dropped for a par on No. 6 that kept him in a share of the lead.

His confidence kept growing after that a wedge into 3 feet on No. 7, and a beautiful pitch that skipped over the ridge and skidded slowly past the hole on No. 8 for another easy birdie.

There was nothing but pars the rest of the way, which was fine with Mickelson. He's in the lead, and the green jacket has never been so close.