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Just when we all thought Tiger Woods might be completely back to being his former self on a course worthy of the re-launch, his old pal Phil Mickelson stepped in and interrupted the ascent.

Their pairing on the final day of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, an event that annually shakes loose the doldrums of winter and gets everybody in a righteous mood — the Masters is just around the corner, right? — for the golf season, was dominated and snatched away by Phil.

Those two biggies battling took everybody back a decade … except that Mickelson won.

His 8-under round of 64, including bombed putts of 40 and 30 and 20 feet, sent Tiger spiraling downward, rupturing momentum Woods had built through earlier rounds. When the two walked off the green at 18 on Sunday, Tiger had been beaten by 11 strokes.

Part of that domination was Woods' inability to steady his putts. He had been terrific on the greens on Saturday. On Sunday, he couldn't get his ball to roll straight or pure. He also mixed in some loose shots that put him in bad spots, leading to a 75.

Mickelson, though, brought one of his best closing rounds in memory, rallying from six shots back and becoming just the ninth player in PGA Tour history to notch 40 wins. He seemed to feed off the pairing with Woods, whom he once rarely defeated in such a setting, but whom he has beaten the last five times the two rivals have been paired for a final round.

"I just feel very inspired when I play with him," Mickelson told reporters afterward.

Woods seemed something less than inspired, admitting that he "putted awful."

Still, Tiger has come a long way from where he was a year ago. His game is much more solid, his outlook improved. His general ascent remains intact, despite Sunday's disappointment.

Whether or not you're a Tiger Woods fan, that's good for golf. It makes the whole thing more interesting, watching a man who once dominated the game scratch and claw his way back toward a lofty place he for years had fenced off as his own.

The fencing comes with much less arrogance and assumption, or presumption, now.

And the great upshot here is this: The two kings of golf's previous generation look to be steadied and dangerous again. That absolutely tantalizes us for the season ahead. We're all righteously ready for it now that Pebble Beach is done and Magnolia Lane beckons in the not-to-distant future.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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