PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – They’re coming in waves now.
With baby faces, flat bellies and cocksure resolve, a youthful new generation of players is assaulting leaderboards.
Phil Mickelson can’t help noticing.
He’ll turn 41 next month. He’s dealing with psoriatic arthritis. He’s not old by golf’s standards, not yet, but he’s getting older with the game feeling like it’s become young almost overnight.
Where Tiger Woods once loomed as the greatest obstacle between Mickelson and all he has dreamed of achieving before his career is over, a cavalry of youth is now moving in the way.
If Mickelson wants to win 11 more PGA Tour events to reach 50 for his career, if he wants to become the sixth player to win all four of the modern majors, he’ll have to go through the next generation to do so. He needs to win the U.S. Open and British Open to claim the career Grand Slam.
You can’t look at a leaderboard most Sundays now without seeing the game getting younger.
Does that mean Mickelson is feeling older?
“I don’t feel that way,” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel that way because I see some things in my game that are starting to get better and better.”
Mickelson ended an 11-month winless spell claiming the Shell Houston Open last month. He arrives at The Players Championship with the confidence of knowing he won this event four years ago. After a sluggish start to the year, Mickelson feels as if he’s on the verge of a big summer.
“I really know what it is I’m trying to do on the greens now,” Mickelson said. “I’m rolling the ball better than I have in years.
“My short game has been sharp. My driving has been much better. I’m excited about this week. I feel like I’m driving the ball straighter than I ever have, and I’m excited to put that in play.
“My mindset changes after Augusta. It’s not distance anymore. I’ve got to get the ball in the fairway. It will be interesting to see if I can do that this week. If I’m able to put the ball in play, I should have a very good week because I’m able to attack a lot of the greens, the pins and play for some birdies.”
Mickelson may have won The Players, but his overall record shows the struggle his errant driving presents at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. In 17 starts, Mickelson’s recorded just three top 10s. Since his victory in ’07, he’s finished T-21, T-55 and T-17.
Asked if at 40 he senses the window getting smaller on his opportunities, Mickelson shakes his head no.
“I see my game getting better than it has been, and I welcome the challenge and think that there’s a lot of opportunity for me to still have a lot of success,” he said.
With a victory this week, Mickelson can realize another first in his career. He can move to No. 1 in the world rankings.
“It’s certainly what everyone strives for,” he said. “But it’s not something that’s on the forefront of anyone’s mind. I think the most important thing is to win tournaments, to compete in a tournament like this week’s. There’s a lot more satisfaction beating the best players in the world on a challenging test like this than there is to say you’re ranked `X’ in the world rankings.”
While Mickelson’s getting himself ready for the U.S. Open at Congressional, he ranks The Players as among the most important titles he can win outside the majors.
“Having won here, there’s a certain amount of pressure that I feel is taken off,” Mickelson said. “I’m able, I don’t want to say free wheel, but play a little freer.”
In other words, he’s eager to take on the next generation.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMellGC