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Winning is worth risks for Lefty

Remember when the knock against Phil Mickelson was that he was just too darn daring? Never took the easy way out. Always complicated matters by chasing the miraculous. Did he really expect to win majors if he couldn't reel in his love of adventure and corral his runaway confidence?

Those criticisms date about a decade ago, back to when Mickelson was saddled with the dreaded title of Best Player Never to Win a Big One. Four major titles later, Lefty's earned the right to do things his way, as preposterous as they may sometimes seem.

If he wants to hit a sky-high flop shot off a tight lie at the Masters with water looming, have at it. If he envisions hooking a hooded 7-iron 198 yards from the rough to a back pin on 18, by all means give it a go. Risk is his defining quality. If Mickelson's hitting fairways and greens, the gallery's yawning and he's yawning right along with them.

That swashbuckling style endeared Lefty to the masses and provides another reason to feel for Sweden's Peter Hanson heading into today's final round of the Masters. Hanson has the advantage of a one-shot lead after Saturday's shimmering 65, good for a 54-hole total of 207. And he has the disadvantage of playing with Mickelson, who will have everybody but Hanson's family and friends on his side in his pursuit of Masters title No. 4.

Do you realize what this could mean? Tiger Woods owned three green jackets before Mickelson earned his first. Woods had four Masters titles before Lefty notched his second. And by the time dusk arrives tonight their wardrobes could match.

Doubtless Mickelson would take unspoken glee in tying Woods, his career-long nemesis, for second place behind Jack Nicklaus (six) in all-time Masters victories. What would tickle him more is that he also would tie Arnold Palmer, who like Mickelson thrilled galleries with a hell-bent style and won them over with his personality. Even if he was born in the U.S. Open time frame, would fans sing "Happy Birthday" to Tiger as they do Phil?

Mickelson shot out of nowhere on a day when eight players held a share of the lead and most of the morning leaders plummeted as if tied to anchors. Lefty remained an afterthought upon turning the front side in even-par, then blistered the back a 6-under 30, the jet propulsion coming from a curling 25-foot eagle putt cashed at No. 13.

Hanson, playing a group back, channelled the roars into his own game and forced Mickelson to keep pace. The Swede led by two when Lefty overshot the green at the par-5 15th, minimizing his chances at birdie lest he could concoct a solution in his mad scientist's mind -- which he did. That 64-degree wedge wasn't in his bag just to please a sponsor.

"It wasn't the safest shot, and that's not where I want to be," Mickelson said. " But I took on a little risk, and that's a great example of why I put a 64-degree wedge in the golf bag on this golf course. It allows me to slide underneath it off tight lies, pop the ball up on a situation like that. I don't like to hit the lob shot a lot here. You see me putting from off the green more often than not. That was going to be almost an impossible shot to putt along the ground."

Mickelson hit a rainbow and found the pot of gold 6 feet from the hole. He made the putt, setting up his inclusion in today's final group if he could hold or better his position. The challenge came when he drove 3-wood into the right rough on No. 18.

It's not an easy shot. Players have missed No. 18 green left all week. Two hours earlier, Geoff Ogilvy nearly hit his approach onto the adjacent ninth green. But where others see trouble Mickelson see opportunity.

"To that back right pin, I had the perfect shot because that's where the ball was going to want to end up if I hit that hook shot around the trees," he said. "So I didn't have to do anything special. I just shut the face of a 7-iron. I had 198 counting the uphill to that back right pin which is not a 7-iron obviously, but by shutting it and landing it on the front, it's only 168 to carry, and it's easily going to fly [175] or so, and so I didn't have to do anything special to it other than just hit the shot that was required and the ball was going to feed up on top."

He pulled off the shot. He made the birdie putt to match Hanson's birdie on 18. Lefty's played Augusta National 12-under par since he was 4-over through 10 holes on Thursday.

There was a glint in Lefty's eye when he was reminded where he once stood.

"That," he said, "was a long time ago."