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Phil Mickelson, winless since the '10 Masters, returns to Augusta riding the momentum of a victory in Houston

Ah, the rites of spring: birds chirping, bees buzzing and Phil Mickelson waking from a long hibernation just in time for the Masters. Last week Mickelson shook off a sleepy start to 2011 to win the Shell Houston Open by three shots over Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank. In 2010 Phil the Thrill's golf was indifferent at best for the season's first three months and then, out of nowhere, he summoned one of the greatest performances in Masters history, producing a bogeyless 67 on Sunday to cap a four-round 16-under-par 272, which has been bettered only three times in 73 previous playings of the tournament. Mickelson's third green jacket in the past seven years resoundingly established him as the current king of Augusta.

But health woes prevented Mickelson, 40, from building on his triumph. Last June he was waylaid by psoriatic arthritis, and his golf and conditioning suffered as he failed to contend for the rest of the year. Mickelson has learned to effectively manage his condition through medication and a change in diet.

Mickelson's health may have improved in 2011, but he hardly remains immune to family drama. While his wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, continue their encouraging recoveries from breast cancer, son Evan, 8, came down with a scary kidney ailment. He was facing surgery until his condition recently improved. Through all of this Mickelson played a heavy schedule, determined to, in his words, "make 2011 the year I thought 2010 was going to be."

In fact, for months Mickelson had been puttering along, saying he was playing better than he was scoring. Last Saturday at Redstone Golf Club he finally got the ball in the hole a little quicker, birdieing half of his holes for a course-record-tying nine-under 63. Mickelson was relentless again on Sunday, roaring to five consecutive birdies in the middle of his round to highlight a 65 that brought him his 39th career Tour victory. It was a dominant performance that recalled 2006, when Mickelson won the BellSouth Classic by 13 shots and then followed up with a Masters victory. On Sunday he credited an early-week visit to Augusta National for his more spirited play. "It reenergizes me every time I go there," Mickelson said. "I get excited with the game and fall in love with the game again and again. It reminds me how much I dreamt as a kid of playing there."

Now, suddenly, a healthy and happy Mickelson is a heavy favorite to become only the fourth player, after Jack Nicklaus (1965--66), Nick Faldo ('89--90) and Tiger Woods (2001--02), to win back-to-back Masters. "It gives me a little bit of momentum," Mickelson said on Sunday night, right on time.

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MOVING UP In winning his 39th Tour event, Mickelson jumped ahead of Woods in the World Ranking for the first time in 14 years.