Mickelson and a Haas together again with plenty at stake

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January 29, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- When Bill Haas was growing up, he spent his free time at PGA TOUR events either on the range watching his father Jay hit balls or following the nine-time champion when he played.

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"I wasn't running around in the family dining or anything," Haas said with a smile.

So truth be told, Bill doesn't really remember meeting Phil Mickelson until about eight years ago when he played in his first U.S. Open as a sophomore at Wake Forest -- even though his dad and Mickelson played the TOUR together for the better part of 15 years.

"I was older, but even at that age I was definitely old enough to respect how good he is and what he's done," Haas said Saturday afternoon as he recalled that first meeting with Mickelson. "I still don't know if I quite see myself -- I'm on TOUR, but he's got 50, or 40-something wins -- so that's another level.

"All these guys, Tiger and these guys, are on another level than us young guys. But we're young, we're building up and we're trying to catch guys like him."

Haas' estimate was a tad generous -- Mickelson actually has 38 wins, including four majors -- but the point is well-taken. And Haas, now 28 and a two-time champion on TOUR, will be going head-to-head against the wildly popular left-hander in the final group of Mickelson's hometown tournament on Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Haas and the 40-year-old Mickelson, who now lives in nearby Rancho Santa Fe, are tied for the lead at 12 under after rounds of 71 and 68, respectively, on Saturday. But it's hardly a two-man race with Hunter Mahan, who completes the final threesome, and Bubba Watson one shot back and Anthony Kim lurking at 10 under.

Mickelson has been there, done that enough to know better than to focus solely on one player. Even if the steady Haas has come of age over the last 12 months and is riding a wave that has seen him finish first or second three times in his last four starts on TOUR.

"He's got really a solid, solid golf game," Lefty said of the second generation Haas. "Simple, beautiful golf swing. Great touch around the greens and a very good putter that he's going to be really difficult to try to beat. So is Bubba, and there's a few guys right behind us that are going to be very challenging players, too.

"Anthony Kim is a guy that can light it up at any given moment. So it's going be to be a big challenge. But we've got some good players up there on the top of the leaderboard. I think it's going to be an exciting Sunday, and I'm happy I'm part of it."

It's safe to say that Mickelson has played more rounds with Haas' father than with the son. In fact, prior to their Sunday date, the two had played just four competitive rounds together. Mickelson and Jay were paired together that many times in 2005 alone.

And consider this: When Mickelson won the first of his three tournaments at Torrey Pines in 1993, Jay tied for fourth -- and Bill was just 10 years old. When Jay picked up his first TOUR title in San Diego, Mickelson was 8, some four years before Bill was even born.

Sunday offers Haas another opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps, like he did a year ago when he picked up his first TOUR win at the Bob Hope Classic. Haas nearly was successful in his title defense last week, too, but ended up losing in a playoff to Jhonattan Vegas, who, at 9 under, will be in the penultimate group on Sunday.

The experience at La Quinta last weekend could serve Haas well as the spotlight intensifies in the final round.

"I hung in there," he acknowledged. "I saw my name up there most of the day and was able to hang in there and hold the lead for some of the of back nine there. I hit a lot of quality shots on the back nine. ... Hopefully, tomorrow, if things aren't going right, you've got to be patient. ... I can tell myself that I did it yesterday, I can do it today. Just tell myself I've been striking it nice and keep going.

"... (I am) maybe a little more comfortable but I haven't been there as much as a lot of these guys. Tomorrow is another stepping stone. I'm just trying to improve."

Mickelson, for his part, is trying to make this year the kind he thought 2010 would be after he won his third Green Jacket. He didn't win another tournament after the Masters, though, and was so anxious to get the 2011 campaign under way he started practicing a week earlier than he usually does.

All three of Mickelson's victories at Torrey Pines came before the 2001 redesign, and he has struggled to regain his comfort zone on the course he loved so much. He's throttled back his gambling nature this year, though, and the results are obvious.

"I'm just playing it much more conservative, because the reward isn't there," Mickelson said. "This course doesn't reward you for taking on any challenge. And my more conservative approach into the greens, albeit boring, has led me to be on top of the leaderboard."

That tie for 37th in Abu Dhabi last week seems to be an abberation. Mickelson, who has reeled off three sub-70 rounds this week, is energized by the fans here, as well as by the return of his wife Amy to his gallery after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.

"I don't know that the past victories are going to help me, but I would say that I just love playing well in this tournament, and I've missed it," Mickelson acknowledged. "I've missed being in contention and having opportunities to win here. ...

"Such a fun tournament for me to play well because of growing up here as a kid and looking outside the ropes, inside, dreaming of playing the TOUR. ... It is just a fun place to get in contention."

For him, and for the fans.

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