Mickelson eyes a big year with focus back to golf with no more distractions

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After three straight years of dealing with illness in his family and health issues of his own, Phil Mickelson's focus is again completely on golf. His goal is simple but ambitious: He wants to make 2011 the best year of his career.
By
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

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One of the more compelling images from Torrey Pines apparently won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Phil Mickelson, in the middle of a five-week stretch of tournaments, took time off to rest Tuesday. That allowed his caddie a chance to sneak over to play golf at Whisper Rock before getting back to work at the Phoenix Open.

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Jim “Bones” Mackay wasn’t on the phone very long when it was time for him to play a shot, so he handed the phone off to someone in his group. That turned out to be Geoff Ogilvy, who provided details of the round.

“We’re actually having Bones run up from the fairway to tend the flag for us,” Ogilvy said.

 He was only kidding, and Mackay can expect plenty of that.

In yet another case of Mickelson’s entertainment value, he needed an eagle on the par-5 18th hole at Torrey Pines to force a playoff with Bubba Watson. The odds weren’t very good, and Mickelson knew that. But leaving nothing to chance, he had Mackay tend the flag as he stood over his third shot from 72 yards out in the fairway.

Having a caddie tend the flag for a full shot from the fairway is unusual, but not unprecedented. Then again, it was only nine months ago when Mickelson told his caddie NOT to tend the flag when he had a birdie putt on the green.

That happened in the third round at Quail Hollow last year, when Mickelson was trying to make a point about the severe greens. From 60 feet away, he felt his only chance at par was to putt well right of the cup. He ended up getting his par.

Few players are more unpredictable than Mickelson.

Yes, he is Phil the Thrill.

Phil also has a plan.

He came into this season with a pointed message that he delivered first in Abu Dhabi, then repeated last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he shot four rounds in the 60s and had to settle for second place.

Mickelson wants 2011 to be the kind of year he hoped 2010 would be.

He won the Masters last year, a moment made even more special when his wife, Amy, was on the 18th green for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer. His chief nemesis, Tiger Woods, was out of the picture with his personal life and golf game in a free fall. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Mickelson replaced him at No. 1 in the world ranking.

A dozen tournaments came and went, and the baton instead was passed to Lee Westwood.

It was only late in the season, before the PGA Championship, that Mickelson revealed he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. He never said just now much it held him back. Even now, he says only that he was lucky to have caught it early before it did any permanent damage to his joints, and that medication has allowed him to resume his normal work.

“We thought 2010 was going to be a phenomenal year,” swing coach Butch Harmon said Tuesday. “He was in the best physical shape. Amy was on the road to recovery. And then along comes June, and the arthritic thing hit him. The mental side was the toughest. Phil hid this very well, but he thought his career could have been over with. That was playing on his mind.”

Mickelson brought his entire family and Harmon to Abu Dhabi, where he tied for 37th. Harmon said they worked on his game in Abu Dhabi, and that Lefty’s short game showed plenty of rust from not having competed in two months.

Beyond the swing, they talked about course management.

“One of the things I told him at Abu Dhabi was his process of thinking wasn’t very good,” Harmon said. “We not only worked on his game, but we worked on the mental side of how he plays. I told him, ‘I never want to take away your aggressiveness. I’m not trying to make you conservative. I’m trying to make you smart.”’

That showed itself throughout the week at Torrey Pines, and even on the final hole.

His mistake was a tee shot that he popped up slightly and pushed to the right, although he appeared to have a decent lie, and the tees were moved up so much that Mickelson had only 228 yards left.

“We saw his ball and thought, ‘This is awesome.’ And when we got within 10 feet of it, going for the green wasn’t even an option,” Mackay said. “He would have had to curve it a tremendous amount, and it had all this grass around it.”

The only choice was to lay up, and that’s when Mickelson sent his caddie to the green. Mackay didn’t think anything of that, either. Mickelson said a dozen or so times a year, the flag gets in the way of a wedge shot.

One of those occasions was at the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2009 on the 15th hole. A year later, Mickelson hit the pin on the same hole and watched it ricochet off the green. At least the second time, he chipped in for birdie.

Pin or no pin, he had to settle for birdie at Torrey Pines and a runner-up finish. Regardless, it was his best start to a PGA Tour season since he won the Bob Hope Classic in 2004.

Next up is the Phoenix Open, followed by Pebble Beach and Riviera. He has won each of those events at least twice.

Harmon began working with Mickelson in 2007, right before Lefty captured The Players Championship. Then came a wrist injury that summer. His wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer weeks apart in 2009. The arthritis arrived in 2010.

“It’s the first time in the last three years there hasn’t been any turmoil Phil’s his life,” Harmon said. “We haven’t had one year where everything falls into place.”