Mickelson kicking off season at popular stop in the desert

January 16, 2013
Helen Ross

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Phil Mickelson has kept a low profile this week as he prepares to kick off his 22nd PGA TOUR season at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation.

The four-time major champion battled flu-like symptoms for the better part of the last 10 days that forced him to cancel a couple of practice sessions with Butch Harmon and delayed his arrival in the desert. Mickelson registered for the tournament on Wednesday morning, though, and is slated to tee off at 12:10 p.m. ET (9:10 a.m. PT) off No. 1 at La Quinta Country Club in Thursday's opening round.

Twice Mickelson has opened his season at this popular stop in the desert with a victory. In fact, of his 40 victories, 18 have come in California or Arizona in the two months before the TOUR heads to Florida. He is the career money-leader at the Humana Challenge with more than $2 million in earnings, too.

"It's a great place to start the season because we have usually very calm conditions, we have great practice facilities and three wonderful golf courses." Mickelson said in a teleconference on Monday. "... I have a small place out there at one of the clubs that I'll stay in and after each tournament round go practice and put in that time to build a solid foundation for the rest of the West Coast, as well as the rest of the season."

This week marks the first of five straight starts for Mickelson, who is looking to find momentum and jump-start his season in familiar territory once again. Among those will be Mickelson's title defense at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- his 40th win -- in three weeks.

The popular left-hander left the Monterey Peninsula last year and lost in a playoff the following week. He had two more top-four finishes, the last at the Masters, before becoming mired in a slump that saw Mickelson finish 25th or worse in nine of his next 10 starts. His normally steady iron play deserted him and the ramifications were felt throughout his bag.

Mickelson turned things around in the FedExCup Playoffs, though, tying for fourth in Chicago and second in Indianapolis. He went 3-0-1 at the Ryder Cup and tied for second in his last start at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions to grab some momentum for 2013.

"Each week I got better and better all the way through the Ryder Cup and even overseas into China," he said. "So that's why I'm so excited (about this year) is that each area has been getting better and better each week that I've played. And I don't think I would feel that way had I not gone through such a tough point last year that required me to analyze each area of my game."

Another player who tends to seize momentum early in the year is Mark Wilson, who captured last year's Humana Challenge -- riding a career-low 62 in the second round into a share of the lead and eventually winning by two. The win was the fifth of Wilson's TOUR career and his third in the first five weeks of the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

And no one is hotter than Russell Henley, the rookie who birdied his final five holes on Sunday to win the Sony Open in Hawaii. His 256 total -- which came courtesy of three 63s -- matched the third-lowest 72-hole total in PGA TOUR history.

"I think one more good night of sleep's going to help," the 23-year-old Georgian said Wednesday. "... I'm probably not quite as well-rested as I was last week, but I still have a lot of adrenaline and I'm really, really excited to go play."

Reigning FedExCup champ Brandt Snedeker, who won the Farmers Insurance Open 53 weeks ago and then made a strong run through the FedExCup Playoffs to claim the $10 million bonus, is also playing. Snedeker, who will compete in the Humana Challenge for the fourth straight year, comes to the desert with momentum, too, after finishing third at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Celebrities entered in the first three rounds this week include TV host Carson Daly, singer Michael Bolton and Alice Cooper, actors Craig T. Nelson and Peter Gallagher and athletes like Marshall Faulk, Eric Dickerson and Ozzie Smith. Sunday is reserved for a pros-only finish, though.

Wilson says the change from five rounds to four has been a boost. The previous week's tournament is played in Hawaii so the commute is a long one and the extra day of preparation is a welcome addition.

"One of the things that was fun, I had a chance to meet with Bill Clinton in December and he talked about that was one of the big changes that he wanted to do when Tim Finchem called him and said, do you want to do something with this tournament and continue Bob Hope's legacy," Wilson recalled. "And he said, yeah, but we have to look out for the pros here. We can't be asking them to play five days, we can't be asking them to play with three amateurs.

"And I was really impressed that he understood things that go on with our livelihood that we usually think people overlook. And so the PGA TOUR, Humana, the Clinton Foundation really thought it through and I think it's a lot better product."

David Toms, who was tied for the first- and second-round leads a year ago, also likes the format change that has the pros playing with just one amateur each of the first three rounds rather than the three in the past. That way, there's another pro in each foursome.

"It's a little somewhat easier to concentrate, I would say, and feels more like a normal event," Toms said. "I think they have really tried to step it up as far as the environment for the players. So I think it's been a good mix for everyone so far."