SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – High noon under this desert sun on Tuesday showed exactly 25 professional golfers beating balls on the TPC Scottsdale range with varying levels of furiosity, another 10 working on their craft in the short game area, three dozen dutifully rolling putts on the practice green and untold others investigating the potentially tricky nooks and crannies of the golf course.
None of them was named Phil Mickelson, nor were any overly concerned about the whereabouts of one of their most popular brethren.
The defending champion was AWOL on this day and promises to be on Wednesday, too, having already withdrawn from the Waste Management Phoenix Open pro-am.
The excuse does come with a doctor’s note attached. On Friday night, after making the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, Mickelson withdrew because of a lower back injury. In the time since, he flew to Dalton, Ga., to visit with specialist Tom Boers.
“If it was any other tournament, I’d skip it,” Mickelson said in a released statement, “but I’m defending, it’s my second hometown and I love the event. I’ll have a light practice session and if it goes well I may try to play.”
The first part of that comment might have come affixed with an invisible asterisk to denote major championships as well, but the message remains: This one means a lot to Lefty.
He first played the title sponsor-bereft Phoenix Open as a freshman at nearby Arizona State in 1989, posting scores of 71-76 to miss the cut. Since then, he’s not only endeared himself to the raucous galleries, he’s made a career out of this tourney.
Mickelson has won here three times. He’s amassed more than $3.6 million in total earnings, making him far and away the record-holder. He’s posted 60 here. Twice.
There aren’t many PGA Tour events more closely associated with a single player, but that relationship is in jeopardy of growing this week.
All of which leaves two potential scenarios.
The first sees Mickelson – the consummate riverboat gambler on the course – playing this one conservatively. Having already voiced his goal of winning a long-elusive U.S. Open title this year, he decides to rest up and try to avoid any further damage to that lower back.
The second is intrinsically more enticing. In this scenario, he decides after a Wednesday range session at nearby Whisper Rock that he is indeed healthy enough to give it a go. Either he plays and doesn’t quite fare as well as he’d like or – in an even more palatable plotline – he picks up where he left off with last year’s wire-to-wire victory, battling against the odds to the delight of the galleries.
“I’m itching to play,” he said, “but I have to look at the big picture. I have a number of tournaments I want to play and play well this year, including the majors, so I have to be realistic about how I feel in the short term.”
It’s a smart play from a guy who’s made a career out of being a risk taker. That won’t stop the fans here in his so-called “second hometown” from rooting for the latter scenario.
A year ago this week, Mickelson gave them plenty to cheer about, opening with a round that came within the edge of the final cup from being a 59, then lofting a tee shot to within inches on the boisterous 16th hole during Saturday’s third round.
But a big week this time would afford a different type of celebration. Everyone loves a comeback story and, around these parts, everyone loves Phil.
Hey, it could happen. But for now, in the days leading up to this year’s edition of the tournament, the game’s consummate gambler is still weighing the odds.