Mickelson hopeful of Woods return


SAN DIEGO (AP)—Phil Mickelson is the No. 1 player in golf, at least amongactive players.

The way he played at the end of last year, and as excited as he is about hisgame going into a new season, he has reason to believe he can be No. 1 whenTiger Woods returns.

His putting feels better ever, courtesy of hooking up with former PGAchampion Dave Stockton toward the end of the FedEx Cup and getting immediateresults with a victory at the Tour Championship. Mickelson says his driving hasgone from a weakness to a weapon. He has gone to a driver with about 6-degreeloft, and his misses are not what they used to be.

Phil Mickelson, left, hits fro…
AP - Jan 27, 4:33 pm EST

And the last two tournaments he played last year, the final day turned intoa duel with Woods. Mickelson won them both.

“At the end of last year, I felt like things were starting to really cometogether,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “Taking some weaknesses and turning theminto strengths give me the confidence or the belief that this could be anexceptional year.”

It starts for Mickelson when the Farmers Insurance Open gets under way atTorrey Pines. And his season starts without Woods, who is on indefinite leavefrom his spectacular and sordid downfall.

That’s about the only thing that tempered Mickelson’s enthusiasm.

He doesn’t look at Woods’ absence as any greater opportunity than when Woodswas playing, for Mickelson is among the few that relish such competition. Nordoes Mickelson look at himself as the one player capable of bringing star powerto golf.

“Nobody will be able to … fill the shoes,” Mickelson said.

Speaking for the first time in public since Woods’ confessed to infidelity,Mickelson didn’t bother waiting for the first question at his press conferenceWednesday. He offered a pre-emptive strike filled with compassion andperspective, even if it was short on detail.

“The game of golf needs him to come back,” Mickelson said. “It’simportant for him to come back and be a part of the sport. But right now, he’sgot a lot more important things going on in his life. Amy and I are good friendswith both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out.

“But I’m going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore, and Iappreciate your understanding on that.”

More questions followed, although Mickelson refused to be drawn into adiscussion on whether he can fill the void left by Woods or whether he wassurprised by the amount of media coverage, from gossip magazines to standuproutines on late shows.

He did confirm that he has tried to reach out to his longtime rival and had“limited communication.”

“With the family—not necessarily saying with who in the family,”Mickelson said.

No one has more to gain than Mickelson while Woods is away.

He is the No. 2 player—in the world ranking, PGA Tour victories,television appeal—and even before details emerged of Woods’ infidelity,Mickelson was poised to challenge him like never before.

“My whole career, I’ve been trying to get to No. 1,” he said. “I justhaven’t had much success. But this year, whether or not Tiger is in the field, Istill believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, tochallenge him. I’ve had some great head-to-head success in the last year or two,and I expect this year—with or without him—to be one of the best years of mycareer.”

Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines, although he hasn’tseriously contended since 2001. The South Course later was revamped and thegreens were rebuilt to get ready for the 2008 U.S. Open. Now, however, Mickelsonhopes he has figured it out.

The timing couldn’t be better.

While the Farmers Insurance Open has the prime spot on the West Coastschedule—played during the one-week break before the Super Bowl—the field atTorrey Pines never had been particularly strong. It only looked that way becauseit featured Woods and Mickelson, the top two draws in golf.

Mickelson is among three players from the top 20—the others are RobertAllenby and Ernie Els .

Storms swamped the courses last week, and while they arein good shape heading into the opening round, officials could only get lawnmowers in the rough on Tuesday. It was still thick, prompting Allenby to say ashe studied his ball in the left rough Wednesday, “We played a U.S. Open herealready. Are we playing another one?”

Els played his pro-am late Wednesday, and after missing the fairway on No.7, he grabbed a 7-iron and began a 280-yard walk. He knew that was all the clubhe could play from that rough.

The U.S. Open is the biggest trophy missing from Mickelson’s collection, andhe’s hopeful this is the year he wins that and so many other prizes that haveeluded him—a money title, PGA Tour player of the year, even No. 1 in theworld.

Still, he made no secret of his hopes for Woods. Mickelson wants him back,for himself and the sport.