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Getting paired with Tiger gives Lefty jolt he needs to get back on top

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- They lolled lazily on the rocks behind the scenic, beatific 18th green at Pebble Beach, rolling into the water to chase some fish, whiskers twitching, occasionally barking at one another or crawling on their big bellies.

Apparently, they were sleepily oblivious that, a few yards away, a figurative seal-clubbing was taking place.

Hey, might as well phrase it in the parlance of the Monterey Bay aquatica.

Shaking off several months of uninspired play, 41-year-old Phil Mickelson shot an 8-under 64 on Sunday to blow away the field and playing partner Tiger Woods, winning the Pebble Beach Pro-Am by two strokes and recording his 40th PGA Tour victory as his nemesis watched, powerless to do anything about it.

Paired with his longtime foil for the first time in 11 months, Mickelson started the day six shots off the lead, and in the most brilliant stretch of play this season by any player, made up eight strokes in the first six holes to take the outright lead, leaving Woods as a blurry smudge in his rear-view mirror.

After months of lethargic play -- Mickelson had only one tour victory in the previous 22 months -- all it seemingly took was a round alongside the former world No. 1 to get his attention fully engaged. He was two shots behind Woods to start the day, and used the emotion of his pairing to fire the lowest round of the chilly, breezy day, by a whopping three shots.

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"He has been able to get some of my best golf out of me," Mickelson told the massive crowd at the 18th green. "It's very inspiring to play with him."

Not to mention perspiring for Woods.

Mickelson learned shortly before dinner on Saturday night he would be paired in the penultimate group with Woods and had no trouble admitting that it was as though somebody had thrown the switch in his brain.

What a difference the Sunday dance partner made. For the past year, Mickelson has been seeing a sports psychologist to help him overcome his lack of direction on the course, which he described as being "a little bit lazy, mentally."

"I've had to address it because of some of my focus issues," he said.

All he needed was Woods in his crosshairs.

After getting routinely drilled by Woods in their head-to-head pairings for over a decade, the sea change came in 2007 when Lefty's swing coach, Butch Harmon, who previously had tutored Woods for years, clued in Mickelson to some of the mental gymnastics Woods had been pulling on him over the years.

Ever since, Mickelson has rewritten the script entirely, amassing an 8-3-1 mark in terms of their lowest score in the past dozen times they have been paired. Mickelson actually smirked when asked if Harmon's psychological warfare counsel about Woods helped.

"Possibly," Mickelson said, coyly.

Being a complete adrenaline junkie, playing with Woods is like sticking his tongue in a light socket. It's funny to note the last time Woods played in the Bay Area, a fan tossed a hot dog at him in the final round. Seriously, Mickelson's the guy who ought to be covered in mustard, because when he gets a shot at the spotlight, he tends to hog it until the electricity runs out.

Mickelson can go through weeks without contending, as he did in his first three starts this year, but when he sniffs Woods or the prime-time greasepaint, the guy turns into P.T. Barnum.

"Phil's a big-stage kind of guy," said his caddie, Jim Mackay said, in perhaps the most succinct and spot-on description of his boss ever offered.

At times over the past two years, the magic seemed to have waned. A major golf magazine published a cover story last week about Mickelson entitled, "Out of Focus," but with that persistent smile on his face, he cut Woods and the rest of the field into tiny pieces and fed them to the sea lions.

"He gets fired up with everybody watching," Mackay said.

Even though they were paired in the penultimate group, all eyes were on his pairing. The tournament sold roughly 37,000 tickets on Sunday, and at times, it seemed like all but a few dozen were with the Lefty and Woody Show.

With Woods wobbling, Mickelson applied the scoreboard blowtorch in fast order. He birdied three of the first five holes and eagled the sixth to take the outright lead from 54-hole leader Charlie Wi, who had four-jacked the first green to open the door. Just like that, he had made up eight strokes in six holes.

Woods, on the other hand, shot 75 -- missing five cringe-inducing putts from inside 5 feet -- and skidded to T15, his second successive letdown when contending on Sunday in a full-field global event. Woods, who hasn't won since late 2009, could not summon the energy to keep abreast of Mickelson. Only four players posted a bigger number than did Woods and nobody in the top 40 shot a higher score.

"He played really good today," Woods said. "He was hitting it flush. To hear the sound ... and his wedge game was right on the money."

Speaking of wheelbarrows of cash, it represented Mickelson's fourth victory at Pebble Beach, where his maternal grandfather, Alfred Santos, once worked as a caddie in the early 20th century. That it came within arm's reach of Woods surely made the accomplishment even sweeter.

"I don't know, I just seem more focused," Mickelson said of his Woods dalliances.

Overall, they stand 13-13-4 in noggin-to-noggin play when paired. But now that Mickelson seems to have solved Woods' secrets, the results have turned around like an ebb tide in Stillwater Cove. The past five times they have been paired in the final round, regardless of whether they were in serious contention, Mickelson has finished with the lower score.

With his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame set for May, Mickelson moved into ninth place in PGA Tour annals with 40 career victories.

"I guarantee he's going to be thinking about chipping away at 50," Mackay said.

If they paired him every week with Tiger, he might get there by the end of the year.

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