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'Lefty' avoids meltdown to win at Riviera
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On the verge of blowing the biggest lead of his career, Phil Mickelson turned his fortunes around in the final hour at Riviera with back-to-back birdies that carried him to a one-shot victory on Sunday at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles.

Mickelson went from a four-shot lead at the start of the final round to a two-shot deficit with three holes to play. But he hit nine-iron to five feet for birdie on the 16th, holed a six-foot birdie on the 17th and saved par with a six-foot putt on the final hole.

He closed with a one-over 72 to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back years at Riviera.

"I'm pleased to be sitting here as the champion. And it was not easy. I had a five-shot lead and I let it slide. The good thing was that I was able to fight hard. Even though I didn't have my best stuff, I was able to fight through."

Steve Stricker closed with a 67 and was on his way to the range to get ready for a playoff when he saw Mickelson leave himself a tough par putt on the final hole, and stopped when he heard the cheer. "It's just a little disappointing when you don't finish it off, or have the opportunity to finish it off," he said. "And I didn't."

Stricker missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-five 17th that would have given him a three-shot lead at the time, then missed a 12-footer for par on the 18th.

But the real heartache belonged to Fred Couples.

A two-time winner at Riviera, his favorite golf course west of Augusta National, the 49-year-old had a chance for one last victory in his final full season on the PGA Tour. Couples was one shot behind when he fanned his approach to the 18th green and watched in disgust as it struck a eucalyptus tree. He finished with a bogey for a 69 to tie for third with Korea's K.J. Choi (69) and Argentina's Andres Romero (70).

Couples learned earlier in the week that his former wife, Thais Baker, died of breast cancer. "She was a nice person," he said. "She did everything she could to make it another month."

Mickelson finished at 15-under 269 and won for the 35th time in his career. It was the first time since the 2005 PGA Championship that he won a tournament without breaking par in the final round.

Mickelson won for the 17th time on the West Coast, and it could not have come at a better time. He had failed to break the top 20 in his first three starts, missing the cut in Phoenix and making it on the number at Pebble Beach.

Mickelson had never lost a PGA event when leading by more than four shots going into the final round, but what appeared to be his biggest collapse turned into a stunning recovery.

He did not find the fairway with a driver until the 15th hole, and then he hit his stride and effectively buried the sour memory of a costly bogey at Riviera's 72nd hole two years ago.

In 2007, Lefty had led by one standing on the 18th tee but bogeyed the last before losing to compatriot Charles Howell III at the third extra hole of a playoff. "To make that par on 18 when two years ago I didn't, that meant a lot to me," Mickelson admitted.

(Agencies via China Daily Feburary 24, 2009)

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