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Mickelson primed for Masters

HOUSTON, April 4- Phil Mickelson has regained his form just in time to try and defend his Masters title, outduelling fellow American Scott Verplank down the stretch Sunday to capture the Houston Open.

The 40-year-old Mickelson fired a seven-under 65 to win by three strokes and post his first title since winning the 2010 Masters.

"I am very pleased I played well," said Mickelson, who finished at 20-under 268. "It feels really good for me to have played well and gained some momentum heading into next week.

"I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together."

It was also his first win since announcing at last year’s PGA Championship that he suffers from psoriatic arthritis, which he controls with medication.

Verplank carded a 68 for 271, where he was joined by second-round leader Chris Kirk, who shot a fourth-round 67 at the $5.9 million tournament.

Mickelson, who earned his 39th career title, is hoping history will repeat itself as he is the last player to win the week before achieving a Masters’ title.

In 2006, Mickelson won the BellSouth Classic and then went on to take the green jacket.

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The following year a schedule shift saw the Houston Open become the last Masters tune-up event.

Asked if Sunday’s win made him the favourite for next week’s Masters, Mickelson replied, "I don’t think that is for me to say. I am just trying to get my game ready.

"Next week at Augusta, that golf course can be very penalizing."

The victory also vaults Mickelson into third spot on the world ranking list, putting him four spots ahead of Tiger Woods who fell to No. 7.

It marks the first time Mickelson has been in front of Woods in the rankings since the week before Woods won the Masters in 1997.

"I’ve been saying all year, ‘I’m playing well, but I’m not getting the scores out of it, and I’m just kind of having a lapse of focus,’" Mickelson said. "It was a great week in that regard, and great for getting momentum heading in next week."

Mickelson opened his final round with a birdie on the par-four first hole but really got things going with five consecutive birdies beginning on the par-three ninth.

The turning point for Mickelson came on the par-three 16th where he placed his tee shot within five feet of the flag.

Verplank dropped to three back on 16 after two putting for bogey. His tee shot found the greenside bunker.

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Mickelson solidified his reputation as one of the best closers on the tour. He has now won 21 of the last 30 events where he has either held or shared the lead heading into the final round.

Verplank, 46, was seeking to become the oldest winner on the PGA Tour since October, when 47-year-old Rocco Mediate captured the Frys Open.

At one point early in Sunday’s round, Verplank had a two-stroke lead. But it soon disappeared as Mickelson stepped up his game.

"I was birdieing every other hole," Verplank said, "and I couldn’t pull away from the guy.

"It’s nice that I hadn’t forgotten how to play."

Mickelson finished tied for 12th at last year’s PGA Championship just days after he announced he had been diagnosed with a severe form of arthritis that if left untreated made it impossible for him to even get out bed.

Doctors are treating the illness with drugs and Mickelson has also made changes to his diet, although he admitted earlier this year that his attempt at a completely vegetarian diet had been "doomed" from the start.

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