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Masters: Harrington downplays pursuit of third major title in a row

Former Masters champions Jack Nicklaus (left), Arnold Palmer (center) and Gary Player of South Africa sit together while playing in the par 3 contest before the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday.

Former Masters champions Jack Nicklaus (left), Arnold Palmer (center) and Gary Player of South Africa sit together while playing in the par 3 contest before the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Padraig Harrington is trying to go where only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have gone in the modern golf era: to the winner’s circle in a third consecutive major championship.

Hogan won the 1953 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in succession, and Woods went one better with his Tiger Slam by winning the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship and 2001 Masters.

Harrington set himself up for a triple bagger and the Paddy Slam with wins in the British Open and PGA Championship, which, adding his 2007 British Open title, gave him three major titles in the last six played.

While others are making a huge deal out of Harrington’s quest – Lee Westwood joked in a text message, “What’s all this about the Paddy Slam? Are you starting up wrestling?” – the Irishman is downplaying the pursuit.

“It’s a chance to win another major. It’s a chance to win The Masters,” Harrington said.

“Because it’s three in a row, it adds to it, but not significantly,” he said. “It doesn’t make the pressure any different from turning up at any major and trying to win it.”

Tiger poised for win?

Step by painful step, day by agonizing day, Tiger Woods slowly worked his left knee back into shape after surgery last June took a tendon from his right thigh and made it his new anterior cruciate ligament.

Tournament by tournament upon his return to golf, the world’s No. 1 worked his game back into shape. With a winning birdie on the 72nd hole two weeks ago in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, he looked in vigorous shape again ahead of Thursday’s start of the Masters as he pursues his fifth green jacket and 15th major title.

“I really wanted to get into contention and feel the rush again on the back nine,” said Woods, who lost in the second round of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play and finished in a tie for ninth at Doral in his first two starts since ending an eight-month layoff after his 2008 U.S. Open win. “It was great to feel that. It’s been a while, and a lot of uncertainty over the months upon months of rehab, and it felt great to hit shots.”

Lefty polishes short game

Two months ago, people weren’t wondering what Phil Mickelson would do next. They were wondering what was wrong after he began the year by missing a cut and tying for 42nd and 55th in his next two events.

So much for wondering.

Two wins later, a sharpened short game and a power game fed by a “tee it high and let it fly” approach, the world’s No. 2 golfer is among the favorites to win The Masters and his third green jacket in six years, a feat accomplished only by Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

“I’ve had great practice sessions here, and I feel ready,” Mickelson said. “I’m trying to hit the ball high and far to combat the length of the golf course. And I’ll continue to attack pins with my iron game and rely on my short game for when I misfire.”

He was firing on all cylinders when he ended a 0-for-46 streak in majors with his 2004 triumph at Augusta National and added a second green jacket in 2006 with a sterling final round.

To win a third Masters, he might have to go through Woods in a Sunday showdown, a scenario golf fans have been aching to see.

Shark welcomed back

Greg Norman has never won the Masters, but in his return this year he has become somewhat of a folk hero.

“It seems like every player is pulling for me,” said Norman, who qualified after finishing third in last year’s British Open and is in The Masters for the first time since 2002. “They’re all saying, ‘Play well, play well.’ When I was here in the 1980s, nobody was saying, play well.”

He was a two-time British Open champion who rose to No. 1 in the world, but losses in the Masters – as a victim of Jack Nicklaus’ charge in 1986, Larry Mize’s miracle chip-in in ’87 and a six-stroke collapse in the ’96 tournament that was won by Nick Faldo – stick in observers’ minds.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” said Norman, 54. “It shows what impact I’ve had on the event.”



Site: Augusta, Ga.

Schedule: Thursday-Sunday

Course: Augusta National Golf Club (7,435 yards, par 72) Purse: TBA ($7.5 million in 2008). Winner’s share: TBA ($1.35 million in 2008)

Television (Tucson times): ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 1-4:30 p.m., 5-8 p.m.) and CBS (Saturday, 12:30-4 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.)

Last year: Trevor Immelman won his first major title, closing with a 75 – matching the highest final round by a champion – for a three-stroke victory over Tiger Woods.

Last week: English star Paul Casey won the Houston Open for his first PGA Tour victory.

Notes: Gary Player is making his 52nd and final Masters appearance. The three-time winner is 73. Three teenagers are in the field: 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, 18-year-old Danny Lee and 19-year-old Rory McIlroy.

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