DULUTH - While Phil Mickelson's massive lead took all the stress and worry out of his BellSouth Classic final round, his words in a post-round press conference came as a relief to tournament organizers.
Moments after finishing off Sunday's dominant PGA Tour win, the left-hander pledged to defend his championship next year at the TPC at Sugarloaf, even though the event is moving to May.
"That was certainly a welcome thing to hear," said Dave Kaplan, executive director of the BellSouth.
The Tour's 2007 schedule saw a number of date switches for tournaments, and the BellSouth was one of the movers. It's way too early to tell what kind of field next year's Duluth tourney will have, but getting a star like Mickelson is a very good start.
After Sunday's win, Mickelson was asked if he could imagine not returning to Sugarloaf - where he will come back next year as a two-time defending champion.
"Oh no (I couldn't imagine it), I'll be back," Mickelson said. "It's disappointing for me it's not the week before the Masters (next year). But if it's best for the tournament, if we get better weather, if we'll be able to get crowds like we had this week and the support in May, then that's great for the event."
BellSouth officials hope this year's tournament weather is a preview of future events. The move to May was made to avoid the rain and cold of early April, but for the first time in years neither element made a significant impact on the tournament. A brief rain delay on Sunday afternoon was the lone issue.
Mickelson didn't have any problems with his game, either. He sharpened up his game for this week's Masters with a sparkling effort at the BellSouth that produced an astonishing 13-stroke victory, the highest margin on Tour since Tiger Woods' 2000 U.S. Open win.
"(Mickelson) was playing a different golf course (than everybody else)," Kaplan said. "I think it would have been a really exciting golf tournament if the guys between second and 10th were battling each other for first place. But Phil just walked away with it. It was unbelievable."
After opening with a course record-tying 63 in the first round, Mickelson never slowed down in his wire-to-wire victory that made him the event's first three-time champion. He followed that up with 65, 67 and 65, good for 28-under-par 260 and a slew of tournament records.
The 28-under score matched the low for a 72-hole PGA Tour event and his 31-birdie week was one off another Tour record. He said he was less concerned with the low scores and records, and more focused on getting ready for this week's major.
"I've been trying to get ready for the Masters," Mickelson said. "I mean, that's a tournament that really means a lot. I don't want to undermine a tournament like this because it's a really great event and a quality event. I'm very proud to be the
Mickelson capped his final-round 65 off with a 24-foot eagle putt on the par-5 18th hole. It was the second eagle of his back nine - the first came when he hit a 322-yard drive on the par-4 13th to slightly more than three feet from the pin.
His lead was never challenged on Sunday, but the battle for second place got interesting. Zach Johnson, who won the BellSouth in 2004, birdied his last four holes to tie Jose Maria Olazabal for second place at 15-under 273.
"(Mickelson) is doing absolutely everything right," said Johnson, who played with Mickelson on Sunday. "I can't think of a missed shot he hit really. He missed his first drive after the rain delay but that was really about it ... it was a display of perfect golf."
He later added, "I mean, 13 shots better. That was complete domination."
Jonathan Byrd finished alone in sixth place at 12-under 276 while Shane Bertsch, Richard S. Johnson and Doug Barron tied for seventh. Luke Donald, Charley Hoffman, Ryuji Imada, Briny Baird and Steve Flesch tied for 10th.