Mickelson drives strong toward Augusta
DORAL, Fla. -- His eyes lit up when the subject of Augusta National was broached. As much as Phil Mickelson tried to restrain himself, it was impossible.
The Masters is still 27 days away and there is still work to be done, including the weekend rounds at the CA Championship. Heading into Saturday, Mickelson holds the 36-hole lead in a World Golf Championship event for the first time.
But an early-week visit to the site of the season's first major championship did nothing to squelch Mickelson's enthusiasm for dogwoods, azaleas and Amen Corner.
The two-time Masters winner visited the hallowed Georgia ground Tuesday and was greeted by a picture-perfect day. It didn't hurt that Mickelson seemed to be launching his drives into orbit, making the ever-expanding layout far less daunting.
"I drove it very well there, and I knew heading in here that it was going to be a good week," Mickelson said Friday after a 6-under-par 66 gave him a two-shot lead at the WGC-CA Championship.
A good week?
So far, very good.
Mickelson is driving it a mile, and when he makes a mistake, he chips in.
That might be simplistic, but Mickelson is killing the ball off the tee, averaging 304.9 yards, with a long drive of 347 yards on Thursday. He hit one 337 on Friday on the second hole. Only Spain's Alvaro Quiros is statistically ahead of him.
And Lefty is having a great week around the greens, too, having chipped in four times in two days, including one Friday at the seventh hole for a birdie.
No wonder he was beaming.
"I'm just standing up and ripping at it," he said.
The winner of 35 PGA Tour events who just a month ago was in serious search of his game has found something. Despite shooting rounds of 63 and 62 at Riviera in his Northern Trust Open victory, Mickelson found himself trailing on the back nine of the final round after blowing a 5-shot lead.
Then, when he needed to make something happen, he did.
Instead of steering the ball -- a common affliction for amateurs -- Mickelson decided to just swing at it.
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"When I tee the ball up high and just whaled on it, it had the perfect launch and spin rate, no curvature sideways," he said. "It was just easy to hit and control. And I took that and kind of ran with it.
"In the past when I would hit it this hard, I would have a lot of big misses, and although I had one today [he hit one out of bounds on the par-5 12th, leading to his only bogey], it was more of a brain freeze than anything. And I have more confidence in where the ball is going, even though I'm launching it up in the air into these crosswinds. I'm hitting more fairways, and I'm hitting the ball a lot longer.
"This is perfect for Augusta. This is the driver I'll be using at Augusta, and I'll probably be using it the rest of the year, I'm hitting it so well."
And it'll be the only one he'll be using. Remember when Mickelson won the 2006 Masters with two drivers in his bag? The driver Mickelson is referring to is the FT-9 by Callaway, a club he experimented with in the offseason. It didn't exactly pay dividends at first, as he missed the cut at the FBR Open and had lackluster finishes at the Buick Invitational and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
But Mickelson made two birdies down the stretch to defend his title at Riviera, and all of a sudden he is bursting with confidence.
"I can't be any more excited," he said. "As well as I'm driving it, to be hitting it as high and as far as I'm hitting it, with my short game being as good as it's ever been, I can't wait for Augusta to get here."
Then there is this exquisite bit of timing. Just after his victory at Riviera, Mickelson released a short-game DVD called "Phil Mickelson: Secrets of the Short Game."
Whether it is marketing hyperbole or the truth, Mickelson says his work on that effort -- meant to help amateurs with their chipping and putting -- has paid dividends, despite his already being recognized as one of the game's greats in that area.
1. Mickelson (-13)
2. Watney (-11)
T-3. Perry (-10)
T-3. McIlroy (-10)
T-5. Villegas (-9)
T-5. Pampling (-9)
T-5. Marksaeng (-9)
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"Simplifying my techniques and to articulate and translate it so everybody can do it has forced me to simplify my own game," he said. "And consequently, I've never chipped or hit better bunker shots as well. I'm excited about getting this thing out because I think it will help some people."
It is unlikely to help anybody else win $1.4 million in a single weekend, as Mickelson is in position to do if he can close the deal at Doral, a place he might feel owes him one.
Four years ago, in an epic final-round duel with Tiger Woods, Mickelson came up a shot short when the tournament here was known as the Ford Championship. Mickelson's chip shot on the 18th barely stayed out of the hole, and he finished 1 shot behind Woods.
A year later, they were paired in the third round and Woods pulled away while Mickelson faded to a 12th-place finish.
The tournament then became a World Golf Championship event, a category that remains a huge résumé void -- Mickelson has never captured the title at one, and Woods owns 15 of them.
This week, Woods is not a threat. He is 10 strokes behind Mickelson, mired in a tie for 35th through 36 holes. Mickelson is at the top of a leaderboard stacked with three other tournament winners this year -- Nick Watney, Kenny Perry and Rory McIlroy.
Maybe that'll help him get Augusta off his mind.
Or maybe not.
"I knew heading into this week I was playing well, and I'm excited for this weekend," he said. "But more than that, I can feel my game really coming around for the Masters."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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Phil Mickelson's 36th victory is also a first. After carding a final-round 69, Lefty notched his maiden WGC title at the CA Championship.