'Big Three' doesn't include Mickelson

Updated: January 11, 2005, 5:46 AM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Talk of a new Big Three has dominated the early week build-up here in paradise, where the weather is idyllic and 31 out of 32 winners from 2004 play the season-opener for a cash pot in excess of $5 million.

The Great Triumverate of Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els has assembled to kick off a new year, but as the 2005 season begins we're still asking the question, "Where's Phil?"

Phil Mickelson
APRanked fifth in world, Mickelson may not be in the same class as Singh, Woods and Els.

The answer is not here, where he belongs, where he should be as the No. 4-ranked player in the world, as one of the most popular players not only in the game but also as one of the most popular athletes in the world of sports. It's not a new theme for the Mercedes Championships. Phil Mickelson was on a family ski vacation in 2002 and bypassed the trip to Maui in 2003. Last year he was not eligible.

As an independent contractor, Mickelson doesn't need to leave an excuse slip in Tim Finchem's mailbox at PGA Tour Headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla., but as a box-office draw he owes one to the Commissioner and the Tour. This is a pivotal year in negotiations for the television contract that expires after the 2006 season. Numbers are important -- and not just the numbers written on scorecards. Finchem needs Tiger Woods to be Tiger Woods again. He needs a battle at the top between Singh, Woods and Els. And he needs Big Phil in the game, at high-profile, primetime events, like this one.

Mickelson has his reasons for not being here, most of them legitimate. He has not played the Plantation Course well, failing to crack the top-20 in an event that rarely has more than 35 participants, or break 70 on a course where incredibly low numbers are posted with regularity. Phil has said it's a tough walk for him, even though it leads up a mountain to one of the most incredible views in the world. In his defense, he wants to be ready for the West Coast swing, and events in San Diego and Phoenix that are home games for him. He has said the Kona and Trade Winds wreck his rhythm and putting these greens don't help his stroke.

We hear all that and respect it. We also saw that last year Phil's way produced the best year anybody had in the majors, with a first at the Masters, a second at the U.S. Open, a third at the British Open and a sixth at the PGA Championship. We have heard through sources that Mickelson is working as hard this off-season as he did last off-season -- and that he's comfortable with a new bag of Callaway equipment, as evidenced by the 59 at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

In two weeks, at the Buick Invitational of California, we will have a better handle on golf's man of mystery, the Golf World Newsmaker of 2004. He intends to play in six of the eight events on the West Coast and three tournaments in Florida leading up to the Masters. All we can do now is speculate on whether the Big Three will become a foursome, and whether the group is filled out with Mickelson or Retief Goosen or Sergio Garcia.

"I think Mickelson is the biggest question mark in the world of golf, whether he wants to play, whether he will play, whether he puts the effort forth, if winning one major is all he wanted," says Butch Harmon, saying what the players here are afraid to say. "He's a tremendous talent and I like Phil. I hope he comes out strong and shows the golfing public he still has the desire to be the best player in the world. He had everybody behind him, then he made the equipment change and the way people acted, they were turned off to Phil. I'm not sure if the desire is there, but he's always been hard to understand."

And so it will be, going into the 2005 season, one of the game's greatest talents is also its biggest question mark. We get the feeling that part of Phil likes it that way.

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