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Mickelson, Woods set stage for showdown

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — A sudden burst of birdies for Tiger Woods. A late charge from his nemesis, Phil Mickelson.

Just like that, the stage was set for a thrilling conclusion to one of the most remarkable Masters ever.

At stake for Woods is the grandest achievement yet in golf — the first clean sweep of the four professional majors.

"Just to have the opportunity to do it is going to be a lot of fun," Woods said.

What better person to try to stop him than Mickelson, who already has halted two of Woods' amazing streaks and is poised to shed the burden as the best player in the world without a major championship?

"I desperately want this," Mickelson said. "I've been dreaming of this day."

With three straight birdies down the back stretch Saturday, Woods emerged from a pack with a 4-under 68 and a one-stroke lead at 204, not a bad position for a guy who is 24-4

worldwide when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead.

Mickelson bogeyed with a three-putt from 6 feet and took a double bogey by trying a flop shot from the razor-thin grass on the 14th green. Still, he showed no quit, birdieing the last two holes for a 69 and a spot in the final pairing.

"I wanted to be playing with him," Mickelson said.

As the sun fell on a dramatic afternoon at Augusta National, Woods stayed on the practice green with coach Butch Harmon, fine-tuning the most important part of his game for the most important 18 holes in his young but brilliant career.

The curtain rises today on perhaps the most anticipated day in golf — a matchup between No. 1 and No. 2, and so much more.

Mark Calcavecchia and Chris DiMarco, University of Florida alums who use a bizarre, clawlike grip on the putter, were two strokes out of the lead. Another shot back were two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and David Duval, who has his fourth straight chance to win the green jacket.

Woods, who won the final three majors last year, starting with his record romp in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, has won four of the last five majors.

"I think it's time for him to share," Mickelson said.

Mickelson already has handed Woods his share of misery. Just 14 months ago, he stopped Woods' PGA Tour winning streak at six with a gutsy win in San Diego. In November at the Tour Championship, it was Mickelson who ended the streak of 19 tournaments in which Woods turned a 54-hole lead into a victory.

But he has never beaten Woods while paired with him.

Woods showed how Saturday, and all it took was about 20 minutes to go from a two-stroke deficit to control of the Masters.

Angel Cabrera, the power hitter from Argentina, was at 12 under and seemingly in control until El Pato — The Duck — ran into a problem with water. His approach rolled back into the pond on the par-5 15th and he took double bogey. He had a 70, and was tied at 207 with Els and Duval.

After Mickelson flopped on his risky flop shot over a massive hump on No. 14, he three-putted from 30 feet and also fell out of the lead.

DiMarco, the Masters' rookie who withstood the pressure most of the day, hit two poor pitches for bogeys and also dropped back.

Woods had no such problems.

After a two-putt birdie on the par-5 13th, his approach into the 14th stopped 4 feet from a birdie, and he followed that with a delicate chip behind the 15th green to within 2 feet for his third straight birdie and the lead.

Unlike his romp through Augusta four years ago, when he won by a record 12 strokes, Woods will have a host of challengers trying to stop him.

There were a dozen players within five shots of the lead, four of them past major championship winners, two others ranking in the top eight in the world.

"Even being three or four shots behind going into the final round, you're still in there with a chance to win," said Els, who had a 68. "Tiger being Tiger, he's not going to back down. But there's a lot of talent on that leaderboard."

Duval, who had a cortisone shot last week to alleviate tendinitis in his right wrist, had a 70 and will be paired with Els.

"To heck with having a chance to win," Duval said. "I want to win the golf tournament."

That's a turnaround from the praise heaped on Woods, starting last June at the U.S. Open when he won by a record 15 strokes in the toughest test of golf.

Woods followed that with an eight-stroke victory in the British Open and a thrilling playoff to win the PGA and become the first man in 47 years to win three straight majors.

No one has ever won four straight professional majors. That's what awaits Woods at a Masters that has been building toward a dramatic conclusion.

There could be no better final pairing.

Mickelson has won five times over the past two years, more than anyone except Woods. But he has never proved himself on golf's biggest stage — the majors. The closest he came was two years ago at the U.S. Open, but he missed crucial putts on the final three holes and finished second to the late Payne Stewart.