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Rebound or More Rejection in 2004

PGA Tour (75x100)If youre still trying to digest all that happened on the PGA Tour in 2003, expedite the process, because the official start of the 2004 season is just days away.
Let the debates and questionings begin.
Who among last seasons Player-of-the-Year candidates will again challenge Tiger Woods? Will veteran experience again trump youthful skill? Will we again be shocked and awed by our major champions?
Many of the questions to which we want answered this season are in relation to what we have most recently witnessed.
And such is the case for one of the more intriguing questions in 2004: Rebound or more rejection for Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and David Duval?
A year ago at this time, there was only one player in living creation, according to the Official World Golf Ranking, who was better than Mickelson. He was second on that list; Garcia was fourth; Duval 15th.
Then came 2003.
The trio played in a combined 63 PGA Tour events last season. They managed only nine top-10 finishes between them ' Mickelson had seven of those ' and missed 25 cuts ' Duval had 14 of those to complement two withdrawals.
Most importantly, they took the collar in the Wins department.
Mickelson started the year promisingly, with five top-10s in his first seven events, culminating in his third consecutive third-place finish in the Masters Tournament.
But after leaving the grounds of Augusta National, he failed to factor in any tournament, let alone a major championship. He only three times cracked the top 20, and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time in 11 years. He also went 0-5 at the Presidents Cup.
His disappointing season was best summarized at the PGA Championship. Mickelson held a share of the 18-hole lead after posting a 4-under 66 at Oak Hill.
Poised to pull away from the field early on Day 2, his aggressive approach led to two double bogeys in a stretch of three holes. He shot 75 in the second round, and followed with 72-75 over the weekend.
Unfortunately for the immensely talented left-hander, his biggest headlines came from the things he did ' and said ' off the course rather than on it.
Mickelsons quip that Woods was the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment hes stuck with sparked a controversy.
He created another stir when he tried to pitch for the Class AAA Toledo Mud Hens, who didnt offer the right-handed pitcher a contract after seeing his 68-mile-per-hour fastball.
If I can get my speed up to 85 mph, I wouldnt rule out trying this again, Mickelson said after not making the cut.
First, he may want to work on trying to straighten out the kinks in his driving, where he ranked third in distance and 189th in accuracy on the 2003 PGA Tour.
Baseball disillusionment aside, there is good news for Mickelson. He does have precedence for rebounding after a disappointing campaign.
The last time he went 0-for was in 1999. The following year, he posted four wins, three runner-up finishes and was second to Woods on the money list.
There was a time, not too long ago, that Mickelson would bristle at being second to Woods, but hed love to return to that Silver platform in the World Golf Ranking, as he enters 2004 in the 15th position.
'It was a tough year. I didn't really play to the level I expected to,' Mickelson said at the Skins Game.
'I'm really excited about next year,' he added. 'I'm looking forward to the Ryder Cup in Oakland Hills. I want to have a great year to get on the team, and play well.'
While Mickelsons slide was the most surprising of the three, Duvals was the most dramatic.
After claiming his first major in the 2001 British Open, the former world No. 1 suffered through a dismal 2002 season. Injuries and ailments attributed to a winless campaign.
But that was nothing compared to what he had to endure this past season, when dismal became abysmal.
Duval made only four cuts in 20 starts, with his best finish a tie for 28th. He missed the cut in his first three majors and had to withdraw after an opening 80 in the PGA Championship. He also had to withdraw from the Greater Hartford Open when he hit at least four balls out of bounds in a first-round 83.
He tried to compete in Novembers Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan, but again had to pull out due to injury after just seven holes.
A bad back and an inability to make the proper compensations in his swing because of it have been the most tangible reasons for his downfall. But the emotional and mental distress he has suffered over the past two years ' like the break-up with his fiance in early 2002 and a bout of vertigo this past year' may be his most prominent hurdles.
Still, he tries to keep a publicly positive attitude.
'I've had some tough days this year, some bad scores and some really tough days and some terrible feelings when I've been playing. But, you know, I go home and I have a ball and I still love to do it,' he said prior to the PGA Championship.
Unfortunately in this game, you know, you can't choose your obstacles. In this life you can't choose your obstacles. So I have some pretty good obstacles to overcome at this moment.
It has been reported the Duval is now engaged to be married. Hopefully, this will help right the ship in his personal and professional lives.
He enters this year ranked 242nd in the world.
Similarly to Duval, Garcia struggled with his swing in 2003. But unlike his physically beleaguered counterpart, Garcia did so due to purposeful alterations.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old, under the watchful eye of his father, Victor, entered some mechanics into his natural, lagged movement into the ball.
It took a while for the emotional Spaniard to become completely comfortable in the change. His born ability helped put him in contention early in the U.S. Open and late in the British Open, but he was unable to sustain consistency for four full rounds.
At the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational he held a share of the first-round lead after a 64, but backed it up with a 76. Likewise, at the Masters he opened in 69-78; at the U.S. Open 69-74; and at the WGC-American Express 65-73.
He led the Dunlop Phoenix by three strokes heading to the final round, only to lose to Thomas Bjorn after shooting a Sunday 78.
'You've got to be patient. You've got to try as hard as you can definitely and just wait for it to change,' Garcia said at the American Express.
His final-round scoring average on the PGA Tour this season was 72.3, which was two strokes higher than that of a year ago.
His putting didn't pick him up when his swing let him down either. He dropped from 35th in that category in 2002 to 175th this season.
'If you're not putting well, it puts too much pressure on your game and you try to get it closer and closer and you don't want to miss greens. It's hard to play with that kind of atmosphere,' he said.
Garcia finally broke through with a lucrative victory in Novembers Nedbank Challenge, where he beat local favorite Retief Goosen in a playoff -- a win that was worth far more than the $1.2 million first-place prize.
He is now ranked 36th in the world. Thats 32 spots lower than his position a year ago at this time. However, his rise may be as sudden as his descent if the pieces of his swing puzzle are finally in place.