Wednesday, April 9

Mickelson's major pursuit starts anew
By Bob Harig



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson can only dream about life without Tiger Woods. A life that is already pretty good just might be outstanding, at least in terms of golf.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson will have a much better chance to win his first major if he learns to keep it straight and avoid trouble.

Perhaps it would be Mickelson as the two-time defending Masters champion.

With no Tiger in the picture, Mickelson would be the active player with the most PGA Tour victories, perhaps the No. 1-ranked player in the world. He'd surely have a couple of major championships on his resume, wouldn't he?

Instead, he is at rain-soaked Augusta National answering more questions about his search for that elusive first major championship. When the 67th Masters begins on Thursday, Mickelson will be making his 43rd appearance in a major. So far, as the golf world knows, he's come up empty.

But Mickelson's pursuit has been far from boring. He manages to provide nearly unequaled interest and drama on and off the course, despite his failings in the biggest tournaments.

Last year he said he'd never change his all-out, go-for-broke style, even if it meant never winning one of golf's grand slam events.

Where they're playing

This week:
The Masters
Site:
Augusta, Ga.
Course:
Augusta National Golf Club (7,290 yards, par-72)
Television:
Thursday: 4:30-6 pm ET; 9-11:30 pm ET (USA)
Friday: 4:30-6 pm ET; 9-11:30 pm ET (USA)
Saturday: 3:30-6:30 pm ET (CBS)
Sunday: 2:30-7 pm ET (CBS)
Defending champ:
Tiger Woods


This week:
No event
Next week:
Takefuji Classic


This week:
No event
Next week:
Emerald Coast Classic


This week:
No event
Next week:
Algarve Portugal Open


This week:
No event
Next week:
First Tee Arkansas Classic

This year, he took a shot at Woods' equipment, saying it was inferior. Mickelson meant it as a compliment to Woods, but it came off as a slight because Mickelson bragged about the fact that he could fly a golf ball past the game's No. 1 player.

"I try to be honest and upfront and give you a little insight into something, and I've taken a lot of criticism for it,'' Mickelson said. "What I said was pretty accurate, and yet I great reamed for it.''

Mickelson, who has dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 in the World Ranking this year, certainly sets himself up for second-guessing. He's been criticized for playing too aggressively, especially in major championships. And he's been questioned for seemingly caring too much about distance rather than control.

"Until Phil, in my opinion, can get his golf ball in the fairway for the last nine holes, that's when he's going to compete,'' CBS golf analyst Gary McCord said. "With that equipment he's using, I just don't think he can do it. I told his caddie Bones (Jim MacKay), I said 'Bones, if I was caddying for him, I'd take that driver and break it over my knee.' Because he can hit that 3-wood 280 (yards) and get it in the fairway.''

Will this be the week that Mickelson loses his "Best Player Not To Win a Major?'' tag?

He's had chances to win majors. Six times, Mickelson has gone into the final round within two shots of the lead. Three times he's been runner-up. Four times he's finished third. From the 1999 Masters through the 2002 U.S. Open, Mickelson was in the top-10 nine times out of 14.

But he's not coming into The Masters under the best of circumstances.

Mickelson missed more than a month of action to spend time with his wife, Amy, who had the couple's third child two weeks ago. Last week, he missed the cut at the BellSouth Classic -- a tournament he won in 2000 -- after shooting a second-round 79.

What has held him back in the past? "I've made too many mistakes on Sundays,'' he said.

Why? "He's made some really poor decisions in the last five or six majors,'' said three-time major winner Nick Price. "The man has so much talent, he's got to win a major sometime. But he's got to smarten up his thinking and his strategy on the golf course. For a player of his caliber, that shouldn't be that hard to do.''

Maybe it would be easier if Tiger weren't around.

The Question
Can Tiger Woods win his third straight Masters?

Woods is trying to become the first player in tournament history to win the tournament three straight years. The damp conditions should help. A longer course plays right into his hands.

Five Things to Watch
1. The weather. Rainy early-week conditions and a forecast for more threaten to turn this into a messy Masters. And it makes the golf course play much different than the intended fast, hard conditions.

2. The health of Ernie Els. Early this season, Els appeared poised to challenge Woods' dominance. He won four times around the world before Woods even played a tournament. But a wrist injury suffered a month ago while working out with a punching bag slowed him at Bay Hill and caused him to withdraw from the Players Championship.

3. Davis Love III is coming off the round of his life, a final-round 64 at the Players Championship, and he loves The Masters. He has twice finished second here. Perhaps he is peaking at the right time.

4. There are 16 first-timers in the field this week, and they typically have a tough time in The Masters. Fuzzy Zoeller is the only rookie participant (other than Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen the first two years it was played) to win the tournament on his first try. Zoeller did so in 1979. In addition to the five amateurs in the field, there are 11 pros making their debut: Rich Beem, Jonathan Byrd, Chad Campbell, K.J. Choi, Thomas Levet, Peter Lonard, Pat Perez, Chris Riley, John Rollins, Justin Rose and Phil Tataurangi.

5. Golf, golf and more golf. Those tuning into USA Network and CBS to watch the broadcast won't get any bathroom breaks. Because of the membership controversy, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson dismissed the tournament's corporate sponsors so they would not come under scrutiny. So for the first time, The Masters will be broadcast commercial-free.

THE COURSE: AUGUSTA NATIONAL
For all the talk about a lengthened Augusta National and what it would do to The Masters, we'll probably have to wait another year to get the real answers.

Rain that effectively watered down the course a year ago could do so again. That means the course will play longer, but likely yield better scoring because the greens are softer. Give the best players in the world a soft track, and they'll eat it up every time, regardless of how long it plays.

Last year's stroke average of 73.44 was lower than all The Masters played from 1996 through 2000. And that was with just one player breaking 70 during the final round.

"I guarantee you we wouldn't have seen scores like that if it was dry and fast,'' Woods said. "There's no way.''

After Woods won the tournament in 2001, Augusta National underwent the most extensive changes in its history. Some 285 yards were added to the course, with nine holes undergoing alterations. Tee boxes were moved to force more accurate drives. Bunkers were repositioned to come more into play. But the weather changed everything. The course underwent further changes this offseason, with the par-5 fifth hole lengthened and bunkers moved so they'll come into play off the tee.

Woods won with a score of 276 (12-under) last year. It was well off his tournament-record 270 set in 1997, and four behind his winning score of 2001. But it was far better than what was being predicted at the start of the week, when many believed a few strokes under par would take the green jacket.

Unless the wind blows or temperatures become frigid, expect more red numbers on the par-72, 7,290-yard course.
THE CONTENDERS
We'll pick Tiger Woods to win this tournament every year for the foreseeable future. He's played his past 10 rounds at Augusta under par, and in 24 rounds here as a professional, he's been at or under par 22 times. He is made for this place.

Vijay Singh knows how to win at Augusta, having taken the green jacket in 2000. He's been slow to recover from a rib injury that knocked him out for a month, but Singh was having an excellent year before that. If he is healthy and has his putting stroke, The Masters should remain a good place for him.

Ernie Els has cooled off since winning the first two PGA Tour events and two more on the European Tour, and a wrist injury set him back last month at Bay Hill. But Augusta is a perfect course for him, and he's contended in recent years. If ever there was a time for him to step up, it's now.

Davis Love III comes into The Masters with two victories and big confidence after his final-round 64 at the Players Championship.

THE LONG SHOTS
Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, loves Augusta and seems to have renewed enthusiasm for the game. He's had several top-10 finishes this year and contended at the Players Championship and BellSouth Classic the last two weeks.

Australia's Adam Scott tied for ninth in his Masters debut a year ago and has made the cut in all of his PGA Tour appearances this year.

Phil Mickelson has had four straight top-10s at The Masters, including third the last two years. But his recent layoff might be too much to overcome.

South Africa's Retief Goosen finished second at last year's Masters and is coming off a tie for third at the BellSouth Classic.

David Toms had missed four straight cuts before last week's BellSouth Classic but has missed just one cut in five Masters appearances.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com






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