Golf

Lefty on right path

Phil Mickelson, in his first month with a new coach, won with steady play -- unlike Sean O'Hair, whose 7 on the par-3 17th killed his chances.

His scorecard was signed and victory certified, a coveted trophy awaiting on the massive veranda of the new TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.

Before basking in the glory of a masterful finish at The Players Championship, though, one more item called urgently for Phil Mickelson's signature.

The victory flag from the 18th hole.

''Butch,'' Mickelson scribbled. ``To the first of many.''

Barely a month into his new alliance with Butch Harmon, Mickelson now finds himself in possession of the PGA Tour's crown jewel. A 3-under-par 69 was enough for a two-shot triumph, outlasting Sean O'Hair in a two-man duel down the back nine.

''It was a stress-free type round,'' said Mickelson, whose day was absent of the derring-do normally attached to his scorecard. ``It tells me that I'm on the right path and the things I'm doing are correct.''

Mickelson finished at 11-under-par 277, earning a $1.62 million winner's share that is the highest on any tour. The lefty's 31st career win also will lift him back to No. 2 in the world rankings.

''He did it in absolute style,'' Harmon said. ``It was textbook out there.''

O'Hair's challenge came to a watery end, hitting two balls into the water at the island 17th. A quadruple-bogey 7 led to a 76 that dropped him to 11th.

''You've got to make something happen,'' said the 24-year-old pro, trying to overcome a two-shot deficit with two holes left. ``I didn't bust my butt for four days to get second place. Obviously, I paid for it.''

Mickelson said: ``I respect the fact that he took on that pin and tried to win the golf tournament.''

Sergio García took second, completing his 66 an hour before the leaders came through. Stewart Cink (66) and José María Olazábal (67) were another stroke back at 280.

Tiger Woods also closed with a 67, his first round under par at Sawgrass in his past six attempts. He wound up in a tie for 37th, his lowest finish since missing the cut at last year's U.S. Open.

Since then, he had been out of the top three only once in 17 PGA Tour starts.

PUTTING PROBLEMS

''I felt like I hit the ball decent or at least good enough to contend, but I didn't make any putts,'' said Woods, who twice needed more than 30 putts to complete a round.

The weekend instead belonged to Mickelson, whose previous 13 TPC appearances had resulted in just two top-10 finishes.

The Players marked just his third tournament since asking Harmon to straighten out his driving. They began working together after the Masters, then unveiled their partnership at the Byron Nelson Classic.

Two starts produced two third-place finishes, though Mickelson's driving stats weren't much different. Nor was it through the first two days at Sawgrass, when he hit less than 50 percent of his fairways.

A Saturday morning session with Harmon ironed out some of his flaws. Come Sunday, Mickelson's play looked positively metronomic.

The lefty hit 10 of 14 fairways Sunday, hitting only a slight lull at Nos. 11 and 12. And he didn't miss a green until No. 14, finishing 16 for 18 in that department.

''As the week wore on, I started to hit it better and better,'' said Mickelson, who took the lead with birdies on his first two holes.

Mickelson's only real heart-in-the-throat moment didn't come until No. 18, when his approach flirted with the water running down the hole's left side before landing dry by about three feet.

By that time, though, Mickelson had a three-shot cushion that rendered his closing bogey meaningless.

''I just held onto [the shot] a little bit,'' Mickelson said. ``I wasn't overly disappointed because I tried to eliminate the hook [Sunday]. I didn't hit one hook.''

For three weeks in the making, it was an impressive display.

''What's exciting to me is we're just getting started,'' Mickelson said. ``It's just been three weeks. I can't wait for three months or three years.''

GARCIA'S LAMENT

García's 66 was his best PGA Tour final round in 23 months, but he walked away lamenting his watery finish one day earlier. Charging up the Saturday leaderboard, he pulled his approach at No. 18 into the water.

''I'm going to be thinking about that double bogey,'' the Spaniard said. ``Those two shots [proved] to be crucial.''

More sympathy came for O'Hair, who went blow-for-blow with Mickelson down the front nine but couldn't sustain the pace after the turn. A bogey from a fairway bunker at No. 10 and missed birdie chance at the par-5 11th dropped him two shots off the pace.

''That's kind of where the momentum changed,'' O'Hair said. ``From then on, I was just trying to fight my way back.''

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