Big shoes to Phil for Mickelson


SAN DIEGO (AP)—Even with expectations as high as ever, Phil Mickelson wants toplay it safe.

He rarely has been this excited to start a PGA Tour season, and for goodreason. Mickelson discovered his putting touch at the end of last year and ismore confident than ever with his driver. He had to rein in those emotions whenhe teed off at Torrey Pines for his first competition since beating Tiger Woods and a world-class field in Shanghai more than two months ago.

The South Course, strong enough to have hosted a U.S. Open, was no place tobe careless.

Mickelson picked up birdies on all of the par 5s and wound up with a 2-under70 at the Farmers Insurance Open, which put him in a tie for 40th and in a goodframe of mind going into Friday’s round on the easier North Course.

“It was cautious,” he said. “I was anxious to get started. I didn’t wantto fire at pins and make a bunch of mistakes. I believe the North Course will bea good opportunity to try to go low.”

This is an important week for Mickelson, and for the PGA Tour.

The talk on tour continues to revolve around Tiger Woods, from the shockingrevelations of his infidelity to the mystery of his whereabouts to speculationon when he might return.

Now that Mickelson is back inside the ropes, there is hope that he can helpfill the void created by Woods’ indefinite break. That he started off with asolid round on the South Course left him pleased. He was six shots behind ScottPiercy , who played the North Course on Thursday and shot 64, and only threebehind the best score on the South Course, a bogey-free 67 by Robert Allenby .

Mickelson, however, has been quick to dismiss the notion that he couldreplace Woods.

“Nobody will be able to … fill the shoes,” he said on the eve of thetournament.

The opening round offered some evidence of that. Mickelson is wildly popularin these parts, having grown up in San Diego, and his appeal extends beyond thePacific bluffs that frame the edge of Torrey Pines. If fans were in awe ofWoods, they adored Mickelson. Lefty was easy to cheer, and fans flocked to himthe way they once did for Fred Couples and Greg Norman .

But there was some energy lacking Thursday at Torrey Pines, just as therewas a year ago when Woods couldn’t play because he was recovering from kneesurgery. The gallery chasing after Mickelson scurried along the cart paths aheadof him, although it never topped 750 people and no one had to jostle for a goodview. The biggest buzz came from the engines of fighter jets, taking off fromnearby Miramar and zooming over the course and out to sea for their trainingexercises.

Attribute most of that to the day of the week. Crowds rarely are largeduring the weekdays at the Farmers Insurance Open. The real measure will be onthe weekend, especially if the weather is gorgeous, and Mickelson is in thehunt.

Friday will be a big day for him to do that.

Allenby was the only player among the top 15 who played the South Course onThursday, and the Australian walked off the course feeling as though he were inthe lead, not three shots behind. Mickelson felt as though he was right where heneeded to be going to a North Course that is 712 yards shorter and played 2 1/2 strokes easier in the opening round.

“I want to work my way into the tournament,” Mickelson said. “(Jack)Nicklaus used to talk about that in majors, that he wanted to try to progress asthe week went along, and I didn’t want to try to come out and win the tournamenton Thursday, because it’s just not possible. I’m hoping I play better tomorrowand shoot a low score on the North, good enough to get myself in contention forthe weekend.”

Mickelson has not won at Torrey Pines in 2001. The timing now could not bebetter for him to end that drought.