Even at 41, Phil adamant game is peaking for 2012

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January 25, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Phil Mickelson's World Golf Hall of Fame career includes 39 PGA TOUR victories, a figure that puts him in a tie with Tom Watson and Cary Middlecoff for ninth all-time.

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Nearly a third of those, 12 to be exact, have come during the five stroke-play events during the West Coast swing, four of which are played in his native California and the other in Arizona, where Mickelson went to college and lived for several years.

Small wonder, then, that Mickelson has such high expectations in January and Feburary when he's fresh and energized for the new year. And nowhere are those higher than at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego where he makes his home and already has three victories.

Mickelson has made 83 starts on the West Coast and has a total of 33 top-10 finishes, including five runners-up and a trio of third-place finishes that with a break here or there might have added to the impressive victory total. His most recent win came in 2009 at the Northern Trust Open, where he successfully defended his title at famed Riviera Country Club.

So when Mickelson was asked Wednesday what would make these five weeks a success for him, he didn't mince words.

"In the past I've had some success here, so certainly I expect to win," he said firmly. "If not, I don't want to say that it's a failure, but it certainly wouldn't be what I'm looking for or expect."

Mickelson showed signs of rust last week at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. The two-time champ started slowly, shooting 74 in the first round at La Quinta where he hit two drives out of bounds. So he put the Callaway Razr Fit driver that he'd practiced with during the offseason in the bag and his confidence grew.

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PGATOUR.COM'S exclusive online coverage kicks off this week in the Farmers Insurance Open, with coverage of the South Course starting at 1 p.m. ET. Phil Mickelson (above) tees off with Nick Watney and Hunter Mahan off the first tee on Torrey South at 1:10 p.m ET, so Mickelson's group will be featured prominently during LIVE@ in Round 1. LIVE@ preview | Schedule

"I don't know what I was thinking," Mickelson said. "I had worked with it, I felt good with it, but I didn't want to make any changes from the previous season. So I hit a couple out, and that made the change pretty easy. I drove it much better throughout the week and putted pretty good too."

Of course, hitting fairways is a relative thing when you play golf with abandon like Phil Mickelson does. Lefty, who ranked 177th in driving accuracy last year, was even able to joke about the challenge the tight fairways at Torrey Pines will present him and the rest of the players competing this week.

"Well, that's actually great for me," Mickelson said. "I mean, if everybody misses the fairway, the odds are in my favor. Seve used to say it too. He'd love to play with zero fairways. I think that would probably be the same for me, because if we all had to play out of the rough, I've got a distinct advantage. I've been there enough."

Those adventures in thickets, trees and tall grass aren't what's been holding the four-time major winner back, though. He thinks his putter -- the long and short of it, literally and figuatively -- is actually the culprit, and the stats bear him out. Mickelson ranked 134th in strokes gained putting last year, and it was clearly a matter of emphasis for him in the offseason.

Mickelson said he feels he is a better player now -- "by quite a bit," he noted -- than he was two years ago, a year that brought his third Green Jacket. But if you can't coax the ball into the hole, you'll have nothing to show for it.

"The only thing that matters here is the score," Mickelson explained. "The reason you haven't seen it is pretty clear to me. I think I've got that turned around -- I'm excited -- which is putting. I think these last eight weeks, I'm so excited. I enjoy putting and I think I've got it dialed in."

Don't expect Mickelson to experiment with new equipment or change his practice routine this year, though. He'll be 42 in June, and he's past looking for the quick fix. He's gone back to putting like he did as a kid, aggressively and authoritatively, and the swing he owns has been pretty darn productive over the years.

"My swing is what it is, my chipping is what it is, and so is my putting," Mickelson said. "I'm done making changes to strokes. I'm done trying different putters. I have two putters that I'll use. It's one or the other. I don't make changes with my swing. I work with Butch to make sure that it's the same. So there really isn't any change."

Mickelson loves playing in San Diego because it reminds him of the times he came out to Torrey Pines with his dad and watched the pros, dreaming of joining them one day. He nearly picked up his fourth Farmers Insurance OIpen win last year, famously asking his caddie Bones MacKay to pull the pin as he hit a wedge on the 72nd hole that would have forced a playoff with Bubba Watson had it gone in for eagle.

"Even though I didn't win last year, it was still fun having that chance," Mickelson said. "Having that opportunity to win, and I think that's what it's all about. I didn't play last year to the level I expect, and I think that after a good off season, my game's getting back to where I want it to be, and I'm excited to get back into those opportunities on Sunday."

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