Tiger-Phil duel stole Masters show

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Angel Cabrera overcame a final round sloppier than buffalo wings, survived an even messier three-player, two-hole playoff, but will return to his native Argentina with his second major championship -- this time with a Masters green jacket in his wardrobe.

But enough about the junior varsity ...

The early evening and the Masters championship belongs to Cabrera -- no small thing -- but the day, the 75-deep galleries, the loudest roars belonged to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And for a moment there, when the two of them were just a single stroke out of the lead heading into the 17th hole, this 2009 Masters was almost theirs, too.

"I would say it was the most fun I've ever had on a golf course caddying," said Jim Mackay, who has carried Mickelson's bag for years.

"A couple of shots could have changed the whole world," said Steve Loy, Mickelson's agent.

Cabrera, who won a U.S. Open in 2007 at Oakmont, gets the big paycheck and the sterling replica Masters trophy. But Woods and Mickelson are the two guys who gave this tournament and this Sunday an adrenaline rush. My ears still hurt.

Nothing against Cabrera. By all accounts he's a thoroughly wonderful man. But what will you remember from this year's first major: Cabrera backing first into a playoff and semi-backing into a green jacket (leader Kenny Perry yakked away a 2-stroke lead on the final two holes of regulation and later bogeyed the second and final playoff hole)? Or, Tiger and Lefty landing roundhouse punches to Augusta National as they double-handedly energized this place and almost pulled off the comeback of the ages?

I'm not bashing Cabrera, but it's this simple: if Perry doesn't go bogey-bogey-par-bogey on his last four holes of the day, El Pato (The Duck) is splitting the second- and third-place checks with Chad Campbell. Instead, Perry suffered another majors meltdown and that was that.

By the time the playoff was done Woods and Mickelson were probably long gone from the premises. Woods went as low as 10-under before settling, not happily, at 8-under, four strokes behind Cabrera, Campbell and Perry. That gave him a T-6 finish.

Mickelson made it to 10-under a couple of times, too, but ended up at 9-under, good enough for fifth place. He shot a record-tying, 6-under 30 on the first nine, but, sigh, a 1-over-par 37 on the second nine. His tee shot did a Michael Phelps on the par-3 12th and went swimming in Rae's Creek for a double-bogey. And then there were two late missed putts -- for eagle on No. 15 and birdie on No. 17.

"Well, I didn't know what the leaders were going to do," Mickelson said. "I didn't know what number it was going to take. I just felt like if I could shoot under par on the back nine that I would have a very good chance to win the tournament."

He was right. In fact, a day earlier Mickelson had said Augusta National could be had, maybe as low as 64 or 65. And Sunday morning when Mackay and Mickelson saw the favorable pin placements on some of the holes, they were convinced they could make a run at a third Masters championship.

Then Mickelson started making birdie after birdie. And Tiger made eagle on the par-5 eighth and cranked it up midway through the back nine. And the place shook with noise.

"In my opinion it's the greatest tournament in golf," Mackay said. "We're out there with the greatest player in the history of golf. It's 75 degrees and sunny. You shoot 30 on the front. C'mon man, let's try to win the Masters. It's fun out there."

You have to be out there to understand what it really sounds like when Woods and Mickelson are sprinting up the leaderboard. Half of the patrons were following the twosome to begin with, but the galleries swelled like a sprained ankle when Woods and Mickelson became serious contenders. Or as Mackay put it: "The crowds were digging it."

Much has been made of the Tiger-Lefty rivalry, of the chilly relationship between the two, but none of that mattered Sunday. Instead, the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players in the world put on a show so compelling that CBS' Jim Nantz probably needed a drool bib.

Woods wasn't as sharp as Mickelson. On the driving range, Woods was hitting hooks, blocks, "you name it," he said. And his opening drive of the day was pulled so far left that he was almost in the No. 8 fairway.

"It's one of the worst shots I've ever hit starting out," he said. "I fought my swing all day and was just kind of Band-Aiding it around. And [I] almost won the tournament with a Band-Aid swing today."

Woods probably lost this tournament on Thursday, when he could do no better than a 2-under 70 on a perfect day for scoring. But say what you want about the guy, he never, ever gives up. The same went for Mickelson. Golf's two best players drafted each other as they worked their way into the rearview mirrors of Cabrera, Perry and Campbell.

"They were both really, really into their own games, wanting to win, but you could tell they were both having a lot of fun," Mackay said. "They were saying, 'Great shot' everytime it was necessary. Every time. Every time. Every single shot. Tiger's always been like that. Phil's always been like that. It was cool. It was really, really fun."

Mickelson said they were more concerned with making birdies than they were with each other's scorecards. And Tiger said -- well, he didn't stay long enough to answer that question. Generally speaking, he spent the four days of the tournament in frustration mode.

"I was just terrible," said Woods, whose bogey-bogey finish ended his chances. "I don't know what was going on. It was just frustrating."

And then a Masters official said a curt "Thank you," ending the post-round media session just behind the 18th green.

That's OK. Woods and Mickelson might not appreciate what happened here Sunday, but everybody else does.

"That's one of the better rounds in the history of the Masters, that's for sure," Loy said.

No argument here. And if Cabrera watches a replay, he'll say the same. Or should.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Wojciechowski's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.