Even as he began his road to the Masters earlier this month, Mickelson already was making trips to Augusta National to start preparing for his title defense and a chance to join Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer with a fourth green jacket.
He’ll be going back again next week.
For now, Mickelson is looking for a little momentum. That’s why he decided last week to add the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill to his schedule, giving him two straight tournaments – the Houston Open next week – before the tournament that matters the most.
“I’ve probably left this as a question mark all year, just based on how I felt and so forth,” Mickelson said Wednesday afternoon after his pro-am round. “But given that I haven’t been in contention or played the way I wanted to on the West coast, I wanted to add a tournament.”
His only time in contention was at Torrey Pines, when Bubba Watson made a birdie on the 18th hole and forced Mickelson to make eagle to get into a playoff. Mickelson – as only he does – had his caddie tend the flag with his wedge shot from the fairway. He missed and finished second, and hasn’t been a serious threat since then.
Bay Hill offers up another strong test, although big changes in the world order of golf have produced an anomaly: For the first time in the history of the world ranking, none of the top three players are here.
The highest-ranked player is U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, followed by Woods and Mickelson. Lefty has yet another chance to move past Woods in the world ranking for the first time in 14 years, although far removed from No. 1, it’s not all that relevant.
The Masters? That’s relevant.
Then again, so is the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which Lefty won in 1997. There are times early in the year, and especially in Florida during the road to Augusta, that he will find himself thinking about shots he could use in April. Just not this week.
“Because there’s so much water, because there’s wind, you have to flight your ball differently than you will at Augusta,” Mickelson said. “You can’t stand on the tee and bomb away, so it will be a little different. But I’ll be working on trajectory control, distance control and this course with the wind will be a good challenge to try to get that area of my game sharp.”
Woods hasn’t been sharp, either, leading to a temporary demise of the best two players of their generation.
For both, the road to the Masters has been bumpy.
For nearly two decades – dating to 1992 – Woods or Mickelson have won at least one tournament before Augusta National. Both are winless this year, and unless something changes the next two weeks, this will be the second straight year that neither has a PGA Tour victory before the Masters.
What’s alarming about Woods is that not only has he failed to win, he’s not even coming close. He has not finished closer than five shots from the lead since the U.S. Open last summer.
He attributed that to what he calls the most dramatic swing change of his career – greater than the change under Butch Harmon after the ’97 Masters, and greater than when he went to Hank Haney in 2004.
“They are bigger changes, and it’s taken a little bit of time,” Woods said. “Then again, I’ve showed some good signs of late. The Sunday round at Doral (66) was back to what I know I can do. And then I played well at Tavistock (a two-day TV exhibition), and I’ve had good practice sessions. So I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
He can look forward to hitting first from the fairway for most of the day.
As the tour and television continue to tweak the tee times to get feature groups, they came up with a dandy at Bay Hill. Woods will spend the first two days with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland, both of whom are on the A-list of big hitters in golf.
Woods has never seen Woodland, who won last week at Innisbrook. He needs no introduction to Johnson, and not just because they played together at the Memorial last summer.
Last December, toward the end of the round at the Chevron World Challenge, Woods was waiting to tee off on the par-3 17th when he turned behind him to watch Johnson tee off on the par-5 11th.
Johnson pounded a drive right down the middle, and Woods looked down and shook his head with a smile. Someone in the group asked Woods, “Can you hit it out there with him?”
“Are you kidding? No,” Woods replied.
That led to a conversation about athleticism, and Johnson is a model of the pure athlete starting to be seen more on tour.
“The thing is,” Woods said that day, “there are plenty others just like him. They’re not coming. They’re here.”
Woods got on Twitter later Wednesday and said about the first round Thursday, “I’ll definitely be hitting first from the fairway all day tomorrow with Dustin and Woodland in the group.”
“I’ll be the Corey Pavin of my group,” Woods said at his press conference. “Seriously. I’ll just kind of put it out there in play and put it up on the green and try and make putts. Those guys will be bombing it way out there past me. It’s a new game now. When I first came out on tour, I was second longest. There was only one guy at the time, John Daly, that was over 300 (yards).”
In a way, it’s only fitting.
When he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion in 1996, Woods was paired with the defending champion in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. That was Pavin, and a USGA official with a sick sense of humor filled out that group with none other than Daly.