Originally created 04/03/00

Sudden-death win readies Mickelson



DULUTH, Ga. -- More than four hours of waiting didn't have much of an effect on playoff-tough Phil Mickelson in the rain-plagued BellSouth Classic on Sunday.

The left-hander cast himself as one of Tiger Woods' main challengers in this week's Masters Tournament by making a birdie on the first hole of a sudden death playoff, denying Gary Nicklaus his first victory as a pro.

"I'm ready and have been ready for awhile to win a major championship," said Mickelson, who is 0-for-30 in majors.

Mickelson, 29, is undefeated in playoffs at 3-0. He's also 2-0 in Ryder Cup singles matches.

Nicklaus, the middle of Jack Nicklaus' three sons, had never been in a playoff. His previous best finish PGA Tour is a tie for 28th at the Honda Classic this season.

Mickelson's birdie came on the par-3 16th hole. It was one of the few holes playable after a steady rain that started Saturday night drenched the TPC at Sugarloaf course.

"When I woke up this morning, I didn't expect us to play," said the 31-year-old Nicklaus, a PGA Tour rookie. "It was kind of a Catch-22 situation for me. I'd liked to have played 18 holes, but the worst that could have happened today (in the playoff) was second place. A lot worse could have happened if I had to go out and play 18 holes, which I wasn't anticipating."

Mickelson and Nicklaus were the only ones who stepped on the course Sunday. The rest of the field was sent on its way at 11:30 a.m., making it a 54-hole event for the first time in the 32 years of this event.

The playoff, which started at 2:37 p.m. when the rain finally broke, was over almost before it started. Mickelson hit first, knocking a 9-iron to within 18 feet of the pin on the 162-yard 16th hole. Nicklaus then hit an 8-iron "an eighth or a quarter fat," into the bunker. His ball was near the front lip of the bunker, which he hit trying to blast out. The ball bounced back to almost the identical spot it started. Nicklaus then hit it to within 4 feet of the hole and his short day was done.

"I put myself in a position where it was real tough to get out of the bunker and I didn't," Nicklaus said.

When Mickelson rolled in his birdie putt, he had his 15th PGA Tour victory in nine years on tour and his second this year.

"He didn't have a whole lot of pressure on his putt," Nicklaus said. "If I'd hit a real good shot in there, who knows what he'd done with his putt. I was looking at four at best, so he just kind of stepped up and hit it and let it go. I wish I'd hit my shot better so it would have been a little more interesting."

With the $504,000 first-place money, Mickelson earnings this year jumped to $1,221,406.

Money aside, Mickelson wants that elusive first major championship. It could come this week at the Masters.

"Augusta provides a great opportunity for me to win my first major," Mickelson said. "The golf course's setup couldn't be any better for the way I like to play the game. Having the critical tee shots being right-to-left is a big help. My short game is as good as it ever has been. I expect to do well because of that."

The $302,400 Nicklaus won for finishing second was huge for the 31-year-old. A journeyman for his previous eight years as a pro, Nicklaus is now assured of keeping his PGA Tour card for 2001. The top 125 on the money list at the end of the year retain their cards. With $326,893 being the 125th spot in 1999, Nicklaus is already at $349,226 only a quarter of a way through the season.

"That is definitely a big part of what happened this week," Nicklaus said. "It's a big weight off my shoulder. I can free-wheel it the rest of the year and not worry about whether I'm going to have a place to play next year. It's a tremendous feat for me."

"Gary's been in a very difficult situation his entire life, trying to play golf for a living," Mickelson said. "He's had to live in the shadow of the greatest player of all time. I think he's handled the situation very well."

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.