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Is Lefty finally ready to challenge Tiger's supremacy?

(02-12) 04:00 PST Pebble Beach -- At approximately 3:10 Sunday afternoon, Pacific Standard Time, Tiger Woods, wherever he was, snarled and ripped out an extra set of preacher curls.

"Game on, brother," Tiger possibly muttered at his plasma screen as Phil Mickelson's third shot landed softly onto the 18th green at Pebble Beach to assure an eeeeasy win at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Then Mickelson drilled home his short birdie putt as the Pacific Ocean roared its approval, then he scooped up in his arms several small children -- his own -- as they attacked him. It was a nice picture.

But it wasn't the big picture.

The big picture for Mickelson includes Tiger Woods and major tournaments.

The AT&T is a big-time event, and Sunday's win was a breakthrough for Mickelson. He's officially back on track and no longer has to think about his meltdown-o-rama at last year's U.S. Open.

But Sunday's win wasn't a win over Tiger, and it wasn't a major, and at this point for Mickelson, that's what it's all about.

And if Mickelson continues to separate himself from the pack as he did Sunday, he's going to get Tiger's attention.

Maybe Lefty could give the golf world a gift: a rival for Tiger.

Mickelson isn't there yet. There's still a gap, but he closed it somewhat this week in the Del Monte Forest. He says he's driving better than he ever has. He has sharpened up his putting. And everything in between, Mickelson has always excelled at that stuff.

It's possible that at age 36, Mickelson is ready to take it all up a notch, eliminate some of the erratic and impulsive tendencies, and slap Tiger on the cheek with a glove.

Mickelson and Woods step onto the same course nine days from today in the Match Play Championship in Tucson. Mickelson plays the tournament in Los Angeles this week. Tiger Woods gives himself another bye.

"We (PGA players) like competing against the best, we really do," Mickelson said Sunday when asked about Woods' absence from the AT&T.

For Mickelson to turn the Tour into a two-man affair, he's going to have to keep his game elevated, distance himself from the Jim Furyks and Ernie Elses. But Mickelson moved up to No. 4 in the world with his win Sunday and if he really has pulled his game together as well as he seems to believe he has, he could give Tiger Woodsa run.

There were a lot of fine players chasing Mickelson on Sunday, but once he birdied 11 to take a four-shot lead over his nearest competition, it was time to fetch ESPN town crier and celeb golfer Chris (Boomer) Berman from the Tap Room at the Pebble Beach Lodge, or from wherever he was, and have him bring home Mickelson with, "He! Could! Go! All! The! Way!"

Even earlier, there was a feeling that Mickelson was in charge.

His tee shot at the par-3 No. 5 Sunday was long and over the green, and it mysteriously disappeared into the dense undergrowth. By the time Mickelson arrived, there were about 25 people looking for his ball, with no luck, but he seemed unconcerned.

By rule, he has five minutes to search and he asked a writer who was unofficially timing the search, "How much time (elapsed)?"

"Five minutes."

Mickelson shrugged, said, "OK," and soon headed back to the tee for another try, having lost two strokes and his lead. He seemed to know he had enough game to withstand the setback.

And he seems to believe that his feel-good Sunday feeling is more than a fleeting thing. Mickelson is swinging a new driver and he said Sunday, "I have never driven it as well as I'm driving it right now."

What might concern Tiger Woods, assuming he's capable of being concerned about other golfers, would be the possibility that Mickelson is a late bloomer who has just hit his stride.

Woods won a major in his second year on Tour. Mickelson went 14 dry years on the Tour before winning his first major.

Now Mickelson knows how to win a major, he has won one three years in a row, and maybe he learned even more at the U.S. Open last year.

Lefty's detractors would point out that his final-hole brain-lock at Winged Foot, when he got way too bold and arrogant, is the difference between him and Woods, but what if Mickelson learned a lesson there?

What if Mickelson finally has put it all together, the mental parts and the physical parts? Forget about winning the regular tour stops, let's talk majors.

"(The Masters) has been on my mind since the PGA, as it is with everybody," Mickelson said. "Our next thought is the next major, our thought or focus is always the next major."

Even more big-picture-ish, though, Mickelson could be the only man capable of standing in front of the highballing freight train named Tiger.

Seven wins in a row, Tiger's got. And now he's well rested, and he's got the added motivation of an extra mouth to feed.

Somebody's got to do something. Phil?

Read more at http://sfgate.com



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