Mickelson set for Phoenix Open defense despite bad back

Phil Mickelson led wire to wire last year in winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open for a third time.

Bruce Yeung

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Fans and tournament organizers alike breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday afternoon when word came in that defending champion and Phoenix favorite Phil Mickelson would indeed play in this weekend’s Waste Management Phoenix Open despite a balky back.

Mickelson’s agency released a statement Wednesday confirming he planned to play in Thursday’s opening round after a practice session at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale went well.

"I had a good practice session, though I didn’t go full speed for much of it," Mickelson said in the statement. "I feel fine. I expect to play and play well."

Mickelson withdrew last weekend from the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego with lower back pain. He was diagnosed with locked facet joints and saw a back specialist in Georgia prior to traveling to Arizona. He withdrew from Wednesday’s Pro-Am to test his back.

Mickelson said he also expects to play next week in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, as previously planned.

Waste Management Phoenix Open

Mickelson, 43, has become the Phoenix Open’s top draw outside the famed 16th hole. One of four three-time winners, Mickelson won last year’s tournament with a wire-to-wire victory that nearly included a record-tying 59 in the first round.

Mickelson is also the Phoenix Open’s all-time leading money winner and has played in the tournament every year since 1990, his junior season at Arizona State. For his time at ASU, Mickelson garners unmatched adoration at TPC Scottsdale and regards Phoenix as his second hometown.

With Mickelson in the fold, the tournament maintains significant intrigue. Without him, it might have been tough for the Phoenix Open to challenge its attendance records — the largest in golf — which included record crowds for Friday and Saturday last year.

In Thursday’s first round, Mickelson is set to tee off at 8:15 a.m. alongside Ryan Moore and Bill Haas. As long as his back doesn’t flare up, he’ll have the chance to become the first four-time winner of the event.

Scott Stallings had a breakthrough last weekend, winning the Farmers Insurance Open to capture his first PGA Tour event since July 2012. This week, he tries for another breakthrough.

In three previous starts at the Phoenix Open, Stallings has failed to make the cut. For his past three failings, though, Stallings has excuses. Last year, Stallings was awaiting word on the impending birth of a son.

"Playing with your cell phone in your pocket waiting on your wife to call when your son is being born is not the best way to play," Stallings said Wednesday.

In 2012, Stallings was battling an injury. The previous year was Stallings first time playing TPC Scottsdale.

"I don’t really think necessarily those count," Stallings joked.

Now, Stallings has made Scottsdale his winter home and become abundantly familiar with TPC Scottsdale. He hopes to parlay that into a second consecutive win this weekend.

"I have played and practiced here a lot this winter, so it will be a little bit different experience," Stallings said. "I’m excited to have somewhat of a home game."

— After taking a year off to recover from a broken ankle and tennis elbow, long-hitter J.B. Holmes will be looking to nab a third Phoenix Open win.

Holmes, who finished tied for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open last weekend, didn’t pick up a golf club for the first five or six months of his rehab after ankle and elbow surgeries.

"It was actually a pretty good break just to get away from golf for a little while," Holmes said. "I just tried to look at it as getting a break, get away, recharge the batteries. A lot of stuff had to be done to get ready to get back, so I worked hard the whole time and was ready to come back."

— Playing in his second Pro-Am on Wednesday, Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill had plenty of support in the crowd. D-backs teammates Josh Collmenter, Charles Brewer, Eric Chavez and Patrick Corbin followed Hill from hole to hole with oversized cutouts of his face in tow. Hill was paired with PGA pro Billy Horschel.

— Legendary former D-backs pitcher Randy Johnson, after a fan chanted his name as he approached the ninth green: "Get that guy a beer!"

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