Originally created 04/03/00

Mickelson takes BellSouth



DULUTH, Ga. -- Streaks and sentimental victories don't stand a chance against Phil Mickelson.

Seven weeks ago, Mickelson stood up to another comeback by Tiger Woods and ended the longest PGA Tour winning streak in 55 years. In the rain-shortened BellSouth Classic, he offered no apologies for ending the dream week of Gary Nicklaus.

Mickelson needed only two shots on a soggy Sunday, a 9-iron to 18 feet and the putt for birdie to win on the first playoff hole and deny Nicklaus a chance to be known for something more than just his last name.

"It would have been very nice for him to have been able to break through and get his first tournament win," Mickelson said. "I didn't want it to be at my expense. So I don't feel bad about that at all."

The final round was canceled when heavy rain turned bunkers into beaches and left most of the sloppy TPC at Sugarloaf unplayable.

The skies cleared just long enough for Mickelson and Nicklaus, tied at 11-under 205 after 54 holes, to go to the par-3 16th hole for a sudden-death playoff.

It didn't last long.

Mickelson went first, and hit a high draw safely to the green, the ball spinning back even with the pin. Nicklaus followed with an 8-iron that covered the flag, but was hit just heavy enough to find the bunker.

He paid dearly for such a miniscule miss. The ball came to rest just 4 inches from a lip that was 10 inches high, but looked more like Mount Everest from his view.

"Not much I could do from that position," Nicklaus said.

He opened the blade and tried to pop it over the lip, but it caught the top of the bunker wall and spun back into the sand. His third short just missed the hole but rolled 8 feet by, and Mickelson made his putt to end whatever suspense was left.

Mickelson earned $504,000 -- each shot worth $252,000. It also made the drive east on Interstate 20 a little sweeter for Mickelson, who has won twice in his last six tournaments and goes to the Masters with a load of confidence.

"What I want to do is be able to bring the play that I had this week into next week," he said. "I think Augusta provides a great opportunity for me to win my first major."

Nicklaus stared solemnly at the soggy grass as Mickelson mugged for the cameras with his 9-month-old daughter. Still, he found consolation in defeat.

He earned $302,400, which should be enough to keep his card for next year. And he proved something to himself, even if he didn't get a full round to state his case as a solid player who just happens to be the 31-year-old son of Jack Nicklaus.

"I proved to myself that I can win out here," Nicklaus said. "I was one shot away from winning the tournament, one hole against one of the best players in the world. It just lets me know that there are good things coming down the road."

Besides, Nicklaus acknowledged that the worst that could have happened in the playoff was that he finished second.

"A lot worse could have happened if I had to go out and play 18," he said.

Then again, sudden death leaves no room for error or bad breaks, and Nicklaus got a little of both.

He saw his ball in the bunker and thought about getting up-and-down for par -- until he reached the bunker and saw his ball so close to the lip.

"Three feet farther and it's right next to the hole," Nicklaus said.

Kenny Perry and Harrison Frazar tied for third, two strokes out of the lead. They were among 19 players within five shots of the leaders who never got a chance to make up ground on the final day.

The tour contemplated a Monday finish, but the forecast was just as bad for the next two days. It was the first time a "final round" featured only one hole since Woods beat Tom Lehman in a playoff at La Costa to win the 1997 Mercedes Championship.

After going 18 months without a victory, Mickelson is slowly returning to the form that made him a threat to win just about every time he played. It was his 15th career victory, and the fifth time he has won at least twice in one season.

He and Woods are the only players with at least one victory this year.

As popular as Mickelson is, it was the second time this year that he toppled a gallery favorite. In San Diego, he wasted a seven-stroke lead and recovered to win the Buick Invitational by four shots over Woods, ending the winning streak at six.

"I felt like there were a lot of people who were tired of the streak and were very glad that I ended it," Mickelson said.

At Sugarloaf, despite four teen-agers who painted P-H-I-L on their chests, the gallery was pulling for a familiar face with a familiar name.

"Gary is a very good player and he's been in a difficult situation his entire life, trying to play golf for a living in the shadow of the greatest player of all time," Mickelson said. "I think he's handled that situation very well. I thought his play this week was impressive and important."

It was important to Mickelson, too. Beating Nicklaus on a Georgia golf course in April usually comes with a green jacket. Mickelson will try to take care of that this week.