By Gary Van Sickle
Sunday, April 12, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil the Optimist and Tiger the Hopeful will go into Sunday's finale at Augusta National with one thing in common: With the 73rd Masters on the line, their backs are to the wall. Barring one of the greatest rounds of their lives, they won't have to worry about their Sunday outfits clashing with the green jacket.

\n You can point to a lot of reasons why Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods probably won't win this Masters now. You can start with faulty first rounds on the lowest-scoring Thursday in more than 15 years. While 38 players posted sub-par scores and Chad Campbell flirted with the course record, Phil shot 73 and Tiger shot 70.

\nIt was Saturday, however, when their chances really took a hit. It was moving day, and they barely budged. With Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell semi-stalled, Phil and Tiger could have leapt up the leaderboard and parked their star power squarely in the leaders' rearview mirrors, just like Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. That didn't happen. Tiger birdied three of the last six holes to salvage a modest 70, the same score Perry shot, and Phil lost ground with a 71.

There is some good news. They're both four under par and, in a lucky break for CBS, they will be paired together Sunday at 1:35 p.m. ET.

\n Do not get the wrong idea, however — they are not DOA (Doomed on Augusta). Even at seven shots back with a host of quality players near the top, they both have a chance to pull out this Masters.

\nThey'll need some heroics worthy of Doug Flutie or Bobby Thompson or Christian Laettner or Wonder Dog, but this is the Dynamic Duo that could do it. The reason? Mickelson, in full optimist spin mode, said it all when he talked with a group of reporters behind the 18th green after talking with CBS's Jim Nantz.

\n "A lot of things happen on Sunday at Augusta," Mickelson said.

\n A betting man might wager that Woods and Mickelson will be out of it by the sixth hole on Sunday, but this is a more receptive Augusta National. It's not over yet.

\nTiger has come back from five-stroke deficits to win twice, at Pebble Beach in 2000 and at Bay Hill in 2009, and from eight strokes back to win the '98 Johnnie Walker Classic. And has the memory of Jean Van de Velde faded so quickly? Paul Lawrie began the final round of that classic British Open 10 strokes behind the infamous Frenchman.

\n The biggest obstacle facing Tiger and Phil is the opposition. Angel Cabrera, who shares the lead with Perry, has a power game that is even better suited to Augusta National than it was to Oakmont, where he won the U.S. Open over Tiger in 2007. Perry is a streaky player, and he is hot. Jim Furyk has contended in every major there is, snagged one at the 2003 U.S. Open and could've-should've won that 2007 Open at Oakmont. Who else is in this neighborhood? Todd Hamilton, a British Open champ whose exemption is expiring after this year; Lee Westwood, a Ryder Cup star for Europe; Steve Stricker; Nick Watney, one of the hotter Americans this year; and Anthony Kim, among others. An impressive lineup. Still, Phil and Tiger are the two best players in the game today, and they've won six Masters between them.

\n "I don't think I'm out of it by any means," Mickelson said when he finished. (The leaders were still on the course at 11 under, where they finished.) "I think I need to shoot a 64 or 65, and I think a low round is out there with the greens being receptive."

\n Woods withheld his optimism while the leaders were still on the course, but he was pleased that he rallied from a disastrous start. He made a three-putt double bogey on the par-4 first and had to scramble for a par at the par-5 second from deep in the trees, where he played a shot from his knees. "I put myself behind the eight-ball, but man, I fought hard to get it back today," he said. "That was a hell of a fight."

Woods spent too much time Saturday in the pine straw — at No. 1, No. 2 and No. 7. In three rounds, he has amassed 92 putts. When he missed a putt at the 12th to fall 10 shots off the lead, he slumped over as if he momentarily thought his chances were finished. Then he birdied both back-nine par 5s and got another at the par-4 17th.

\n Mickelson, meanwhile, missed a couple of prime birdie putts on the front and threw away shots on the back when he missed a three-footer at No. 10 and hit poor chip shots at No. 11 and No. 16.

\n On Sunday, Woods and Mickelson need to go low. They need minor miracles. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Yes, because of who they are and what they can do.

Phil is an optimist. Tiger is hopeful. The rest of us are very interested.

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