Golf

Mickelson actually missing his rival

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Phil Mickelson began with a statement of the obvious about Tiger Woods.

"The game of golf needs him to come back," he said, "Nobody will be able to fill (his) shoes."

But then Mickelson added the unpalatable truth his sport's having trouble digesting.

"Right now, he's got a lot more important things going on in his life," the world No. 2 said of his longtime rival.

"Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out."

If Mickelson knows anything about — with due apologies to Brangelina — the world's most discussed relationship, he wasn't saying.

"We've had limited communication with the Woodses, and again, I just feel like discussing any of that is just not appropriate," he said. "I feel like it's a violation of our trust and our friendship."

Assuming that "Tiger and Elin" can still be used in the same sentence after the shocking revelations of Woods' marital infidelities, it's safe to assume that he is now trying to put the pieces of their marriage back together.

Whether he's in therapy for sexual addiction, as has been widely reported, or not, that journey isn't likely to be either fast or easy. Golf is far from his thoughts, according to those who have spoken with him.

A close source to Woods says there is no timetable at all for his return to the links, and characterized as unfounded speculation the theory that Woods will appear at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational in late March as a warm-up for the Masters.

In the meantime, the stage belongs to Lefty.

Mickelson, like Woods, grew up in Southern California and has a special place in his heart for Torrey Pines, venue for the beleaguered San Diego Open which — at least for this year — was rescued by a last-minute title sponsor, Farmers Insurance.

In the past, the problem he's had is that Woods, who played here as a boy with his late father, Earl, has also made his season debut on these gorgeous seaside links.

Mickelson has three wins in 20 starts here but, like everything, that doesn't begin to get him out of Tiger's lengthy shadow. Woods has seven victories — including, most unforgettably, the 2008 US Open — in 12 starts.

But there was enough evidence toward the end of last season that perhaps the balance of power was shifting in golf.

Mickelson, on the back of a new putting technique and longer and straighter driving, knocked off Woods at the Tour Championship in Atlanta and then doubled his pleasure by beating Woods again in China at the HSBC Champions.

His confidence is so high that it was obvious Wednesday a large part of Mickelson wishes Woods were back just so he could realize his impossible dream and finally reach the No. 1 ranking in the world.

Since the world rankings were created in the mid-'80s, no player has spent more time inside the top 10 than Mickelson without having reached the top.

"My whole career I've been trying to get to No. 1. I just haven't had much success," he admitted.

"But this year whether or not Tiger is in the field, I still believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, to challenge him.

"I've had some great head-to-head success in the last year or two, and I expect this year with or without him to be one of the best years of my career."

The evolution is made more remarkable given that Mickelson will soon turn 40 — though in golf nowadays that seems to be the new 30 — and that just a few months ago it seemed his heart wasn't in the game.

In May his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Although if caught early more than 90 percent of women survive the cancer, such statistics amount to cold comfort to families facing the uncertainty that diagnosis brings. To compound his misery, Mickelson's mother, Mary, was soon after also diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mickelson said he felt so bad watching the two most beloved women in his life discover that they had cancer that "most of the time you wish it was you."

Although both his wife and mother are "doing great," they will never be completely in the clear, he said.

"Even in the best-case scenario, dealing with cancer is never easy. We were back in Houston Monday and Tuesday for some treatments. My mom had surgery recently and things are going very well, but again, it's never easy.

"We've got precautionary measures and medicines and so forth that are to prevent it from coming back for five to 10 years that are having pretty tough side effects. So that's been challenging for both.

"But I think the biggest thing for us is that we kind of had to mourn our old life and accept our new, and that's been tough."

Mickelson took the time in a 30-minute news conference to pay tribute to his gregarious wife, a former college cheerleader who's been a mainstay at tournaments for many years.

"I've always known how lucky I've been to have the wife I have and how supportive and loving she's been and what a great mom she is," he said.

"I didn't need something like this to happen for me to be appreciative of that. I've always understood how lucky I've been to have the life partner now for almost 20 years who's been so special."

He said he now looks back on 2009 with "mixed emotions."

"I actually ended the year feeling very grateful about the way the year turned out because in the middle of the year there was a lot of uncertainties, and that was the hardest thing to deal with, and golf wasn't really as important.

"Toward the end of the year as things started to turn around and look up for our family situation, it felt like my game started to come around, as well.

"I wouldn't look upon '09 as being a great year, obviously, but I feel fortunate in how it could have turned out, both golf and off the course."

Woods, unfortunately, can't say the same.
 

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson

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