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Veteran Couples ties Mickelson for lead

Written by: Staff

AUGUSTA, Georgia, Apr 9 (Reuters) American Fred Couples, bidding to become the oldest US Masters champion, birdied the par-four opening hole to tie compatriot Phil Mickelson for the lead in today's final round.

Joint second after the weather-delayed third round was completed earlier in the day, Couples struck a superb approach to four feet and rolled in the putt to get to four under.

The 46-year-old Californian then wasted a chance to forge one shot clear when he missed a four-foot birdie putt at the par-five second.

Playing partner Mickelson, the 2004 champion who led by one going into the final 18 holes, parred the first after missing the fairway off the tee and also the 575-yard second.

Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez was a further stroke back in a share of third place after collecting birdies at the first two holes in bright sunshine at Augusta National.

Level with the pony-tailed Ryder Cup player were Britain's Darren Clarke, after four holes, holder Tiger Woods, after three, and American Chad Campbell, after two.

Twice champion Jose Maria Olazabal and world number three Retief Goosen were among a group bunched at two under.

Spaniard Olazabal reeled off five birdies in the first nine holes while South African Goosen was one under for the round after five.

GRIPPING FINISH The 70th US Masters was set for a gripping finish with 10 players no more than three strokes behind leader Mickelson at the start of the final round.

Mickelson returned a two-under-par 70 in gusting winds on a chilly morning for a 54-hole total of four-under 212.

Woods, chasing a fifth green jacket, holed an eight-foot birdie putt at the last for a 71 to finish at two under, level with Vijay Singh, who returned a 73.

Couples, winner at Augusta in 1992, birdied two of the last four holes for a 72 and a share of second place at three under with Campbell.

The veteran Couples is aiming to replace Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion.

Nicklaus was 46 years two months and 23 days when he clinched a record sixth green jacket in 1986.

Suiting Couples and Mickelson is the fact the last 15 winners here have played in the final pair.

''I sure like that stat now,'' Mickelson told reporters after the third round.

''Two days ago, I didn't put much credence in that. Now that I'm leading, I think it's going to be a very valid stat.'' Reuters VJ VP0132

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