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Tour Championship begins Thursday

  |   Oct. 30, 2002 at 9:20 PM
ATLANTA, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- The PGA Tour's top 30 money winners will begin play Thursday at the Tour Championship, where a quagmire awaits them at the East Lake Golf Club.

Heavy rains have hit the area in recent days, leaving the East Lake course soft and vulnerable to low scores.

Phil Mickelson won the event when it was last held at East Lake, overtaking Tiger Woods en route to the 2000 title. The win was a historical one for "Lefty," who is one of only two players in 28 tries to erase a 54-hole lead owned by Tiger Woods.

The only other player to overtake the world's best player after three rounds has been Ed Fiori, who performed the trick at the Quad Cities Open in 1996, Woods' rookie season.

"To end his streak was not something I was thinking about," said Mickelson, who is ranked second in the world to Woods. "But certainly to beat him when he is in the lead is something very difficult to do."

Woods, 26-2 in PGA Tour events when holding a 54-hole advantage, shared the lead with Vijay Singh before Mickelson caught them early in the final round. Trying to keep pace, Woods missed a birdie chance at the 15th hole, bogeyed the 17th and finished two shots back.

"I made a couple mistakes, missed a few putts," said Woods, whose incredible 54-hole record includes an 8-0 mark in majors. "I didn't play the back nine well. That's probably what cost me."

While it cost Woods, it helped Mickelson to the most impressive win of his PGA Tour career.

Mickelson has gotten in trouble for his aggression, which he used in earning two of his 21 career titles this season -- one in which he has remained second in the World Golf Rankings and winless in majors.

"I certainly would have liked to have won some more, so that's something I'll try to improve on," said Mickelson, who is second to Woods on the money list with over $4 million.

Woods is happy with his year. He has won five times in 18 PGA Tour starts, including The Masters and U.S. Open. In his last five appearances, he has two wins and three other top-four finishes.

"I'm very happy with the way I'm striking the golf ball," he said. "I'm hitting it clean and solid and shaping the shots, so I'm really looking forward to it this week."

He is not the only one. Thirty of the best players in the world are going after the top prize, and everyone has a chance, considering there have been a record 17 first-time winners on the tour this season.

Seven of the first-time champions are here this week, including Charles Howell III, who thinks the rash of new winners is just a coincidence.

"I don't think it's anything special," he said.

Mickelson credited technological advances for helping the younger players win. But Woods was more supportive of the tour.

"I think it shows the fact of how deep our tour really is," he said. "Anybody who is teeing up in this field can win now."

Last year's Tour Championship was played at Champions Golf Club in Texas, where Mike Weir defeated Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and David Toms on the first playoff hole. But Weir is just 77th on the money list this season and not eligible this week.

Champions Club has the Tour Championship next season. But following a deal with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, East Lake will host the event for at least five consecutive years beginning in 2004.

It's a significant place to hold the season-ending tournament, considering Bobby Jones called East Lake home.

"It's neat to come back to this environment," Woods said. "I've seen the house and everything. It's pretty neat to come back to a place this historic."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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