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Lefty plans big season

Posted: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No one can use a long winter's break quite like Phil Mickelson.

No one should be more excited to get back.

The last three tournaments that featured Mickelson and Tiger Woods were enough to get anyone excited about 2010, which very well could turn into a colossal battle between the world's best two players, one that has been long overdue.

They shared the stage at the Tour Championship, where Mickelson won the tournament and Woods captured the FedEx Cup. They shared a trophy at the Presidents Cup as the best two American players. Both were unbeaten, and while Woods had the perfect record, Mickelson might have been more impressive for winning with three struggling partners.

With only one trophy available Sunday in Shanghai, Mickelson stole the show.

Even though his clutch putting over the final three holes gave him a one-shot victory over Ernie Els, what caused such a frenzy at Sheshan International was Mickelson playing in the final group with Woods.

Mickelson had never won a tournament when playing in the last group with Woods.

This time, it was Woods who flinched.

"Anything that could go wrong went wrong for me today," he said.

Woods three-putted twice, hit two balls in the water, and closed with a 72 to finish five shots behind Lefty, who did enough right to shoot a 69 and match his career-high of four victories in one year.

Woods headed south for the Australian Masters and a $3 million appearance fee. Mickelson headed for home in San Diego, where he will have 11 weeks off before returning to the San Diego Invitational at Torrey Pines.

Most years, Mickelson stashes the clubs away until the calendar turns. This won't be one of them. He said he would continue to work on his swing with Butch Harmon and his putting with Dave Stockton.

"I'm excited about 2010 because I'm starting to play the best golf of my career," said Mickelson, who turns 40 in June. "Everything is starting to come together as far as my driving. Since working with Butch Harmon, my ball-striking has been much better. My short game is better than it's ever been. Going into 2010, not only am I excited about it, but I have very high expectations."

This is one year Mickelson is not likely to ever forget.

His life went into a tailspin in May when his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. No sooner had she gone through surgery to determine the scope of the disease, his mother was diagnosed, too.

Mickelson skipped the British Open, and when he returned in August after his wife and mother received favorable outlooks, he did not crack the top 25 until he won the Tour Championship.

The turnaround began when Mickelson asked longtime caddie Jim Mackay for suggestions. Mackay fired off a series of text messages in a desperate search for the phone number of Stockton, considered one of the best teachers with the putter. They hooked up in San Diego that weekend, and Mickelson believes he found the missing link to his game.

Off the course, things are looking up, too.

Mickelson said his wife is doing well enough that she might come to more tournaments next year. He called her from the scoring trailer Sunday at the HSBC Champions -- it was approaching midnight Saturday in San Diego -- and was surprised to hear how she coped watching the tournament on television.

"She said she was so nervous that she was cleaning out cupboards and stuff, which caught me off guard," Mickelson said with a grin. "It's been a fun way for us to end the year, and she's doing much better. We are looking forward to these next eight to 10 weeks off, where we can spend some time together. And we have a few family trips lined up, too."

On the course, the anticipation already is building toward Torrey Pines, with perhaps more clashes against Woods along the way at places like Pebble Beach, Doral and, ideally, Augusta National.

This is not the first time Mickelson has been poised to make a run at Woods.

The last time they played together in the final round of a major was 2005 at Doral. Mickelson had been atop the leaderboard for 10 consecutive weeks and had a two-shot lead over Woods going into the final round. Woods rallied with a 30-foot birdie on the 17th and 66 to win by a shot, and by the end of the year, he was entrenched anew at No. 1.

What makes next year so tantalizing is that Woods hasn't been challenged like this in 10 years.

Sure, Vijay Singh won nine times and dominated the PGA Tour in 2004, but Woods spent the entire season overhauling his swing. That's simply a fact, not an excuse.

Woods has recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, or so it would suggest with six victories this year. He might have lost some of his mystique when Y.E. Yang became the first player to topple Woods in the final round of a major. And it is worth noting that the last four times Woods has played in the final group, he failed to win three times.

Mickelson still knows the score. When a Chinese reporter asked Mickelson, who now has won the HSBC Champions twice, if he would share the winning formula with his rival, Lefty just laughed.

"He has won many majors," Mickelson said. "He has won the U.S. Open, he has won the British Open. I have not. Although it feels great to win this tournament, he has won a lot of events."

Even so, one final nugget from Shanghai shows what could be in store for next year.

Woods and Mickelson have played together 25 times over the last dozen years. Woods' advantage in posting the lower score: 11-10-4.



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