Mickelson on way back with Players victory

Mickelson on way back with Players victory

Phil Mickelson finished with a final-round 69.
David Walberg/SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — In his third week with a new coach, Phil Mickelson suddenly looks as good as ever.

Mickelson added a mini-major to his collection Sunday by winning The Players Championship with control that had been lacking the last three months, closing with a 3-under 69 for a two-shot victory that returned him to No. 2 in the world and pointed him in the right direction with the U.S. Open approaching. (Click here for photos from the final round.)

Sergio Garcia birdied four of his last five holes for a 66, but he was a ceremonial runner-up.

The real victim was Sean O’Hair, and the familiar culprit was that island green on the par-3 17th at the TPC Sawgrass. O’Hair was two shots behind until his 9-iron flew the green into the water. He went to the drop area and watched another shot bounce over the green, and finally walked away with a quadruple-bogey 7.

O’Hair bogeyed the final hole for a 76 and went from second place to 11th, the difference of $747,000.

Mickelson finished at 11-under 277 for his second victory this year, and the 31st of his career. He earned $1.62 million from the $9 million purse, the richest in golf.

What mattered more was how he played. Mickelson missed only two greens in the final round during a well-played duel with O’Hair. This was hardly “Phil the Thrill.” In fact, the only excitement came on the 18th hole, when the tournament already was decided. Mickelson’s approach landed on the edge of the water, and stayed dry by about 12 inches.

He finished with his bogey, the first one on his card in 27 holes.

It was a harsh ending for the 24-year-old O’Hair, who went toe-to-toe with Mickelson along the back nine and hit a shot on the 17th that looked perfect until he could no longer see it.

“You’ve got to make something happen,” O’Hair said. “I didn’t bust my butt for four days to get second place. Obviously, I paid for it.”

Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal fired off a string of birdies for the third straight day and nearly got into the mix. His fourth straight birdie on No. 12 got him within three shots of the lead, but a bogey on No. 15 stalled his bid and he settled for a 67 to tie for third with Stewart Cink (66).

Mickelson walked off the 18th green with his arm around Butch Harmon, whom he hired last month with hopes Harmon – the former coach of Greg Norman and Tiger Woods – could take one more player to No. 1 in the world.

“It’s been a great start,” Mickelson said.

After tapping in for bogey, Mickelson removed the flag from the pin on No. 18 and signed his name with a note: “Butch, the 1st of many.” Then he gave it to his new coach.

“You’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Harmon said. “He’s going to get a lot better.”

Woods is still No. 1 by double the margin and likely will stay there the rest of this year. But it was a good start for Mickelson, especially winning at a tournament where he had only one finish in the top five.

On this day, Woods finished before Mickelson and O’Hair sat down for lunch.

After going from bunker to water for a double bogey on the fourth hole, it looked as though Woods might go an entire week without shooting par or better, something he had only done in three majors. But four straight birdies around the turn and a 10-foot eagle on the 16th sent him to a 67 to finish at 288.

“I knew I could shoot a round in the 60s here if I’d just make a few putts, and I did today,” Woods said.

Eight players were within four shots of O’Hair at the start of the final round, and that number dwindled quickly when only three of those players – Mickelson, Jose Coceres and Carl Petterson – made a birdie through the first five holes.

Mickelson again met with Harmon for a two-hour session on the practice range some six hours before he teed off, and they worked again before he headed to the first tee. Lefty looked irritated with his first drive, a low, sweeping fade that started out over the water before finding the fairway.

But he wasted no time catching O’Hair.

Mickelson holed a 25-foot birdie putt at No. 1, and O’Hair stayed in the lead by making a 7-footer for par. O’Hair had to make a nervy 4-footer on the next hole to match birdies with Mickelson, and the kid followed with two bunker saves to stay atop the leaderboard.

The start of the back nine turned in Mickelson’s favor.

From a fairway bunker, O’Hair bounced his approach over the green and played a full flop that came out strong and went through the green into more rough. He chipped short and made his first bogey to fall one shot behind.

O’Hair appeared to have the advantage on the par-5 11th when Mickelson found the right rough and played a risky shot with a hybrid to the left portion of the fairway. O’Hair had a shot at the green, and his ball came up a yard short of perfect, instead dropping down the slope and into the bunker. It was a simple shot, but O’Hair caught it heavy and settled for par. Mickelson nearly holed his wedge and made a 4-footer for birdie, and suddenly the lead was two shots.

They traded pars the rest of the way, both missing a few good birdie chances.

That gave Mickelson a two-shot cushion playing the island green, one of the few holes were he aims for the middle of the green. That’s where he hit it Sunday, leaving the risk – and penalty – to someone else.


Photos: Sunday at Sawgrass

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