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Talk of two-horse race between McIlroy and Tiger premature with Mickelson in the frame

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Augusta specialist Phil Mickelson

Augusta specialist Phil Mickelson

Augusta specialist Phil Mickelson

THE theory couldn't be any simpler... or more wrong! This year's Masters is totally two-dimensional. It's all about Tiger and Rory.

Even that great bible of American sport tells us so. 'Two Man Game' is the headline on the 'Sports Illustrated' preview of Augusta National, 2012.

Those two men, the story goes, are last April's vanquished hero McIlroy and the reincarnated Mr Woods.

Yet world golf is probably in a greater state of flux right now than at any other time in recent memory.

peak

Graeme McDowell, for example, cannot recall any other occasion in his career when so many of the world's top-ranked players were performing at the peak of their game at the one time.

McIlroy's win at the Honda Classic and Tiger's return to grace at Bay Hill are but two examples of this phenomenon.

Other examples include Luke Donald's return to the top of the world in triumph at Transitions, Hunter Mahan's impressive double at the Accenture Match Play, and last weekend in Houston, Justin Rose purring home in the Cadillac.

Yet few of this season's virtuoso performances had greater impact than Phil Mickelon's demolition of Woods on Sunday at Pebble Beach, when he shot a faultless final-round 64 to clinch his 40th PGA Tour title as Tiger bumbled to a humbling 75. Remarkably, less than two months later, Mickelson is almost a forgotten man coming to the first Major of the year, despite his exemplary record as a three-time Masters winner.

Not even Tiger knows Augusta better than Mickelson, while this place forgives his occasional wanderlust off the tee and favours his genius around the greens.

In truth, the two-man game all of America really wants to see played out on Sunday is Tiger versus Phil -- especially now that Woods has discovered how to win again.

FEW are better qualified to assess Mickelson's prowess around Augusta than Dave Pelz, the former NASA boffin who in December 2003 convinced Mickelson that winning Major titles may, in fact, be rocket science.

"Phil is good, period," says Pelz. "But he plays especially well at Augusta because he loves it. He puts the time in and knows the greens better than anybody else.

"I think he's well prepared this year, he's a wonderful player, has a great short game and the course fits his eye because the greens are so difficult. He loves the challenge this week."

In London taxi driver parlance, Mickelson has 'the Knowledge' around Augusta. It has been acquired through hard graft and patient study, something slightly at odds with his popular image as one of the most spontaneous and instinctive artists in golf.

Pelz reveals that he and Mickelson worked from dawn till dusk at Augusta on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, plotting the correct trajectory and spin required for approach and chip shots and studying the way the ball rolls on the greens, especially at eight and 16, where subtle changes have been made.

It's no coincidence that Mickelson's perplexing career drought in the Majors ended at the 2004 Masters, five months after Pelz joined his backroom team.

During 35 years working as a short game and putting guru with Andy North, Tom Kite, Steve Elkington, Paul Azinger, Lee Janzen and Vijay Singh, Pelz had built a reputation which provided solid foundation for 10 successful short-game academies, including one at Killeen Castle.

So how did Mickelson take to the appliance of science. "Like a duck to water," Pelz replies. "He loves information and he has a very enquiring mind. He's one of the brightest players I've ever worked with and he asks tremendous questions."

PELZ still needed to convince Mickelson that visiting Augusta before Masters week and working out its intricacies in private would help him win that elusive first Major.

"We had quite a discussion about that," explains Pelz, smiling.

"Phil said 'I don't need to go early to Augusta, Dave. I've played 10 tournaments there; have never missed the cut. Including practice, I've had upwards of 100 rounds on that course. I know it'."

So Pelz explained his philosophy of mapping out every likely eventuality and allowing "no surprises".

"I then asked 'How many Majors have you played?' He said 43. I asked him 'How many have you won?'

"And he said 'that's why you're here. I'm 0-43'. So I said: 'Your way is not working too well, let's try mine'," Pelz added.

Within months, Mickelson won the 2004 Masters, following up with the '05 US PGA and the Masters again in '06 and 2010.

"Phil was very open-minded. We've not missed a Major since.

"We'll be over at the Olympic Club early for the US Open. We'll be at Lytham early for the Open Championship."

PUTTING is the key to further Masters glory for Phil Mickelson. Memories of last summer, when he even resorted to a belly putter as he grappled for confidence on the greens, were banished at Pebble Beach.

With help from his long-time putting coach Dave Stockton, Mickelson, at age 41, has been showing the invincibility of his youth.

"He's gone through some very tough times with the health of his family and his own health," Pelz explains. "Phil has got this arthritic condition but he's never made excuses.

"He simply says 'look, the only question is 'can we win', let's go out there and try to do it'.

"You wouldn't believe how much of himself he gives, how intensely committed he is. I've been with him on Monday after Majors and he can barely walk. He has no energy. He doesn't want to think, work or do anything. He has left it all out there."

Bottom line? "Fully rested and playing with his 'A' game, Phil is a better golfer than at any time in his career. He drives it better and longer than ever," says Pelz.

"His irons are as good as ever and his short game, I think, is superior. It pretty much depends on his putting now.

"If he putts well, he's a magnificent putter and is hard to beat."

Irish Independent