SHANGHAI (AP)—No one can use a long winter’s break quite like Phil Mickelson .
No one should be more excited to get back.
The last three tournaments that featured Mickelson and Tiger Woods wereenough to get anyone excited about 2010, which very well could turn into acolossal battle between the world’s best two players, one that has been longoverdue.
They shared the stage at the Tour Championship, where Mickelson won thetournament and Woods captured the FedEx Cup. They shared a trophy at thePresidents Cup as the best two American players. Both were unbeaten, and whileWoods had the perfect record, Mickelson might have been more impressive forwinning with three struggling partners.
With only one trophy available Sunday in Shanghai, Mickelson stole the show.
Even though his clutch putting over the final three holes gave him aone-shot victory over Ernie Els , what caused such a frenzy at SheshanInternational was Mickelson playing in the final group with Woods.
Mickelson had never won a tournament when playing in the last group withWoods.
This time, it was Woods who flinched.
“Anything that could go wrong went wrong for me today,” he said.
Woods three-putted twice, hit two balls in the water, and closed with a 72to finish five shots behind Lefty, who did enough right to post a 69 and matchhis career-high of four victories in one year.
Woods headed south for the Australian Masters and a $3 million appearancefee. Mickelson headed for home in San Diego, where he will have 11 weeks offbefore returning to the San Diego Invitational at Torrey Pines.
Most years, Mickelson stashes the clubs away until the calendar turns. Thiswon’t be one of them. He said he would continue to work on his swing with ButchHarmon and his putting with Dave Stockton.
“I’m excited about 2010 because I’m starting to play the best golf of mycareer,” said Mickelson, who turns 40 in June. “Everything is starting to cometogether as far as my driving. Since working with Butch Harmon, my ball-strikinghas been much better. My short game is better than it’s ever been. Going into2010, not only am I excited about it, but I have very high expectations.”
This is one year Mickelson is not likely to ever forget.
His life went into a tailspin in May when his wife, Amy, was diagnosed withbreast cancer. No sooner had she gone through surgery to determine the scope ofthe disease, his mother was diagnosed, too.
Mickelson skipped the British Open, and when he returned in August after hiswife and mother received favorable outlooks, he did not crack the top 25 untilhe won the Tour Championship.
The turnaround began when Mickelson asked longtime caddie Jim Mackay forsuggestions. Mackay fired off a series of text messages in a desperate searchfor the phone number of Stockton, considered one of the best teachers with theputter. They hooked up in San Diego that weekend, and Mickelson believes hefound the missing link to his game.
Off the course is looking up, too.
Mickelson said his wife is doing well enough that she might come to moretournaments next year. He called her from the scoring trailer Sunday at the HSBCChampions—it was approaching midnight Saturday in San Diego—and wassurprised to hear how she coped watching the tournament on television.
“She said she was so nervous that she was cleaning out cupboards and stuff,which caught me off guard,” Mickelson said with a grin. “It’s been a fun wayfor us to end the year, and she’s doing much better. We are looking forward tothese next eight to 10 weeks off, where we can spend some time together. And wehave a few family trips lined up, too.”
On the course, the anticipation already is building toward Torrey Pines,with perhaps more clashes against Woods along the way at places like PebbleBeach, Doral and, ideally, Augusta National.
This is not the first time Mickelson has been poised to make a run at Woods.
The last time they played together in the final round of a major was 2005 atDoral. Mickelson had been atop the leaderboard for 10 consecutive weeks and hada two-shot lead over Woods going into the final round. Woods rallied with a30-foot birdie on the 17th and 66 to win by a shot, and by the end of the year,he was entrenched anew at No. 1.
What makes next year so tantalizing is that Woods hasn’t been challengedlike this in 10 years.
Sure, Vijay Singh won nine times and dominated the PGA Tour in 2004, butWoods spent the entire season overhauling his swing. That’s simply a fact, notan excuse.
Woods has recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, or so it would suggestwith six victories this year. He might have lost some of his mystique when Y.E.Yang became the first player to topple Woods in the final round of a major. Andit is worth noting that the last four times Woods has played in the final group,he failed to win three times.
Mickelson still knows the score. When a Chinese reporter asked Mickelson,who now has won the HSBC Champions twice, if he would share the winning formulawith his rival, Lefty just laughed.
“He has won many majors,” Mickelson said. “He has won the U.S. Open, hehas won the British Open. I have not. Although it feels great to win thistournament, he has won a lot of events.”
Even so, one final nugget from Shanghai shows what could be in store fornext year.
Woods and Mickelson have played together 25 times over the last dozen years.Woods’ advantage in posting the lower score: 11-10-4.