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GOLF: At one time, Arnie and Jack ruled Augusta -- now it's Tiger and Phil

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson was free on the weekend of the 1997 Masters, so he flipped on the television. He saw 21-year-old Tiger Woods claim his first major title by 12 strokes.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson was free on the weekend of the 1997 Masters, so he flipped on the television. He saw 21-year-old Tiger Woods claim his first major title by 12 strokes.

"It was a monumental event," Mickelson said Tuesday. "The guy shot 40 on the front nine, 40, and he still broke the record. Incredible."

Beginning Thursday, Woods will try to become the second player to win five Masters. His dominance of Augusta National would be complete if not for his biggest rival, Mickelson.

Tiger and Phil have been trading green jackets the way Arnie and Jack did 40 years ago. Woods and Mickelson have won five of the last six Masters (Woods three, Mickelson two). Palmer and Nicklaus claimed six of seven, starting in 1960, with three apiece.

Nowhere does the Woods-Mickelson rivalry shine brighter than on golf's grandest stage. Augusta National has a knack for bringing out the best in the best players of each era.

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"It doesn't happen that often, where we're both playing well at the same time," Woods said. "It's one of the hard dynamics of golf. But we've definitely gone at it here in this event."

Augusta National served as the launching pad for Woods and Mickelson as the site of their first major wins. Some of their greatest achievements are also significant moments in Masters history.

Nicklaus and Palmer helped popularize the game with their Masters duels, including one-two finishes in 1963 and 1964. Many of their remarkable feats played out at Augusta.

Palmer piloted some amazing charges over Augusta's rolling hills. He birdied the final two holes to win his second Masters by one stroke in 1960. In 1962, he birdied 16 and 17 to tie for the lead, then won the playoff.

The year after Palmer won his third title, Nicklaus set tournament records for scoring (271) and margin of victory (nine strokes) in 1965. The most stunning of his six victories, and one of the sport's best stories, came in 1986. At age 46, he went eagle-birdie-birdie on 15, 16 and 17 to become the oldest champion.

Their histories at Augusta are intertwined. In 1963, Nicklaus became the youngest Masters champion at age 23. Woods bettered him by two years with his '97 win.

Woods also eclipsed Nicklaus' milestones for scoring and winning margin in 1997, finishing 12 shots ahead of Tom Kite at 270.

In 2001, Woods concluded his "Tiger Slam" by winning his fourth straight major at the Masters. He's going for his third straight major victory this week. A fifth Masters title would put him in good company, behind only Nicklaus.

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The gap between Woods and everybody else in the World Ranking is larger than ever. But at Augusta, Mickelson stands on even ground.

Since watching Woods' coronation from the couch in 1997, Mickelson has fared no worse than 12th in nine starts. He finished third three straight years before breaking through for his first major win in 2004.

Last year, he won with two drivers in his bag. He'll use the same strategy this week.

"It's certainly a course that I feel comfortable on and have played well here whether I've played well going in or not," Mickelson said. "And when I've entered it playing well like last year, I've been able to win. It's a course that I feel very good on, but so does Tiger. He's very tough to beat out here."

In 1997, Woods played a practice round with Nicklaus and Palmer. Ten years later, he has as many Masters victories as Palmer and is within two of Nicklaus' all-time lead.

"We both marveled at the way he was playing and how good we thought he was," said Palmer, who on Thursday will hit the ceremonial first ball. "And, you know, let's be upfront about it. He hasn't disappointed us."

-- Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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