HUMBLE, Texas – Phil Mickelson feels pretty confident about his game heading into the Masters.
The defending champion at Augusta outdueled Scott Verplank on Sunday to win the Houston Open by three shots, his first victory since earning his third green jacket last April.
And it comes with a notable distinction.
The win moved Mickelson’s world ranking to No. 3, while Tiger Woods dropped to No. 7. It’s the first time Mickelson has been ahead of Woods in the ranking since the week before Woods won the 1997 Masters for his first major championship.
“It feels really good for me to have played well and gained some momentum heading into next week,” Mickelson said. “I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together.”
The 40-year-old Mickelson shot a 7-under 65, the lowest closing score by a winner this year, to finish at 20 under.
He was 16 under over his final 36 holes, after tying the course record with a 63 on Saturday, his lowest round in two years. He won for the fifth straight time when he’s shot 64 or better in at least one of the rounds.
“I’ve been saying all year, ‘I’m playing well, but I’m not getting the scores out of it, and I’m just kind of having a lapse of focus,”’ he said. “It was a great week in that regard, and great for getting momentum heading in next week.”
Tour rookie and second-round leader Chris Kirk (67) tied Verplank (68) at 17 under.
Lefty is hoping he can repeat some history at Augusta this week. The 39-time tour winner is the last player to win the week prior to a Masters victory, capturing the BellSouth Classic in 2006 before earning his second green jacket. The Houston Open became the run-up event to Augusta in 2007.
While many top players, including Woods and world No. 1 Martin Kaymer sat out this week, Mickelson saw no disadvantage in coming here and trying to win. Anthony Kim won last year and finished third at the Masters.
“I think it’s nothing but a plus to be able to gain some momentum,” Mickelson said. “especially given that I haven’t had the results and the scores that I wanted earlier in the year. It gives me a little bit of momentum.”
Verplank, meanwhile, needed a victory just to get to Augusta. The 46-year-old Verplank, with his sore left wrist wrapped in black tape, would’ve become the fifth-oldest champion in the last five years.
His wrist is weakened by a degenerative bone condition, and it affected his grip Sunday. He was making only his fourth start this year.
“It’s nice that I hadn’t forgotten how to play,” he said. “If you’re hurt, you don’t have a ton of confidence in your body. It’s hard to have confidence in anything.”
Verplank earned $519,200 for finishing second, and moved into 14th on the career money list ($26.741 million), passing Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby. He plans to play in San Antonio in two weeks and at Hilton Head in three.
“That would be ideal,” he said, “but I mean, this is the first time I’ve played two weeks in a row. I hope that I can be ready to play in another week.”
By the time Mickelson and Verplank teed off Sunday, the wind was blowing as hard as it had all weekend.
Mickelson ignited a roar from the huge gallery on No. 1, chipping in from behind the green for birdie. He hit errant drives on Nos. 2 and 3, then birdied the par-3 seventh to start his charge.
Verplank kept pace for a while, with birdies on Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 13.
“I was birdieing every other hole,” Verplank said, “and I couldn’t pull away from the guy.”
Lefty tried to use his length advantage over Verplank on the 319-yard 12th, driving onto the front of the green, 66 feet away. He two-putted from there for his fourth straight birdie and his 16th in 30 holes.
They both birdied the par-5 13th, but Verplank three-putted on No. 14, leaving Mickelson alone at the top. Mickelson three-putted the par-5 15th, but then widened the gap for good on the 16th green.
“All in all,” Mickelson said, “this was one of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time, as far as seeing the shot and being able to hit it.”
The victory came with an emotional tug for Mickelson. Dr. Tom Buchholz, a radiation oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, has been treating Mickelson’s wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, who were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
Buchholz and about 30 members of his staff were in the gallery all weekend, and Mickelson gave Buchholz the flag from the 18th hole after his round.
“Houston has become a special place for Phil and Amy,” Buchholz said. “They’re two fantastic individuals, and it’s truly been a privilege to have become part of their lives. Tremendously meaningful to me, to be part of this story.”
Mickelson said Amy and his mother “are doing so much better. We’re in a much better place.”
And with that, he turned his focus toward Augusta.
“I’ve got a big event next week and it’s time,” he said. “As much as I loved winning here and I’ll look back on this in seven, eight days, this being a very special day. Right now, you know, I’ve got some work to do.”